Ignorance Out of the Blue
Mark Tonner writes a semi-regular column for the Vancouver Province titled “Out of the Blue”. In the accompanying photo he is dressed in his uniform, but there is a short disclaimer at the end of his articles stating that his views do not represent the Vancouver Police Department.
Tonner’s inflammatory writing is generally centred around his harsh condemnations for drug users, whom he calls “vampires”. In a column last February, he explained that most of Vancouver’s marijuana growers are Satanist Hells Angels with a taste for hard-core pornography. Tonner’s rantings even sparked a rally outside Police Headquarters, where police taunted protesters and Chief Bruce Chambers said that he could not censor the freedom of speech of a police officer.
Trying to Recover Honour
However, Chambers’ tolerance for free speech only extends so far. When 16-year veteran Constable Gil Puder wanted to give an anti-drug war speech at a Vancouver conference organized by the Fraser Institute, Chambers ordered Puder not to speak.
Chambers said that he would give Puder permission to speak out “if and only if, after my review, I am satisfied that the material is appropriate, factual and meets the high standards expected of a member of the Vancouver Police Department.”
Puder, an instructor at the BC Police Academy, courageously defied the order and presented his paper. Called “Recovering Our Honour: Why Policing Must Reject the War on Drugs”, it is a powerful indictment of the moral bankruptcy of the modern war on drugs.
Puder was careful to erase “Vancouver Police Department” from his name tag, and emphasized that his views were his own and not those of his employer.
Puder’s speech was taped by a Vancouver police inspector, and Puder explained after he had spoken that he was possibly facing legal charges for defying the gag order. When asked what his fellow officers thought of his ideas, he replied that some of his fellow officers respected him in private, but that many were also critical of him and his actions.
Puder called drug-prohibition laws “history’s most expensive failed social experiment,” and advocated fundamental changes in police strategies. He supported a regulated distribution system for marijuana, and research projects on the decriminalization of ‘hard drugs’. We have included excerpts from Puder’s speech at right.
Vancouver’s former Deputy Chief of Police Ken Higgins also called for decriminalization of all drug possession, before he retired from the force last year.
Excerpts from: Recovering Our Honour: Why Policing Must Reject the “War on Drugs”. By Gil Puder:
While strongly believing in devotion to duty, I subordinate the unique requirements of my profession to my responsibilities as a human being, parent, and Canadian citizen, who has no desire to raise his children in a country torn by needless criminality.
My commitment cannot be fulfilled in a military context, applying the law in a punitive manner to people unfairly labeled as amoral losers. Harsh, reactionary criminal justice has proven woefully miscast as a control mechanism for drug use.
A truly comprehensive strategy is now required, including a legalized, controlled drug supply, coupling enforceable and decriminalized regulation with health, education and economic programs.
The challenge for policing is to measure traditional drug war practices against the integrity of truly ethical conduct, and where our performance is less than exemplary, take a leadership role in identifying overdue legislative change.
Changing our approach, however, means addressing an entrenched police culture? Research long ago identified aggressive enforcement and a game-like atmosphere as features of drug policing, which make it an attractive field of endeavour.
Make no mistake, drug-related arrests can be very easy, with hundreds of available, identifiable targets on city streets. Contrary to the Hollywood image, we rarely catch wealthy black marketeers living in mansions and driving expensive automobiles? Arrests usually involve poor, hungry people on street corners or in rooming houses and filth-strewn alleyways.
There are three major obstacles to modernizing law enforcement attitudes. Firstly, people persistently and wrongly identify drugs, rather than prohibition, as the cause of related criminal activity. Many of my peers are unaware of the physiological effects of various controlled substances, and our insular professional culture discourages police from accessing up-to-date information.
The drug war is also a turf war, resulting in medical and criminological research being regularly ignored or discredited. Some officers would be embarrassed to admit that they don’t understand research findings, while others seem threatened by a potential change to their traditional way of doing business.
We’re continually bombarded by self-proclaimed police “drug experts”, who speak to schoolchildren and make media releases? readily contradicting scholarly analyses with smear tactics and conjecture.
It’s commonplace to find examples of police promoting dogma that all drugs should be treated equally, including the groundless myth that drug use inevitably results in criminal conduct? Such willful blindness results in agencies painting themselves into a corner with wrongheaded public statements and questionable conduct.
Lastly, labeling drug users conveniently removes any need for introspection about using government power to remove a person’s rights and freedoms. Marginalized people simply require less respect.
At the end of every shift, one hears officers extolling the virtues of apprehending a “hype”, “junkie” or “druggie”. Since these tools for financial benefit, career advancement, and peer status are no longer valued as people, officers need not trouble themselves with ethical questions.
With the behaviour of drug warriors substantially at odds with virtuous conduct, I fully expect my criticism of the status quo to bring howls of outrage from those law enforcement traditionalists with related career interests. Such groups taking the position of aggrieved parties and attempting to curtail healthy debate will be, quite frankly, the best endorsement I could hope for.
If public trust is the capital foundation upon which police service is built, then we cannot afford to squander it pursuing an archaic interpretation of morality. Our professional integrity must once again remain sacrosanct. Progressive legislation will not occur overnight, but the disastrous impact of drug war on policing is the impetus for us to demand it.
The critical change that must occur is our acknowledgement that drugs rarely cause crime, while money almost always causes crime. Before complaining about drug crime and the associated health costs or tax burden, people should realize that these evils are the offspring of prohibition, a disaster of our own creation. Our unwillingness to recognize reality is an embarrassment?
By refusing to endorse a lawful drug supply which would end this black market cash cow for criminals, I hope police of all ranks and agencies realize that our intransigence allows the perception of “Support your local Hell’s Angel” stickers on our patrol cars.
To force policing to admit that it cannot win this drug war, voters and policy makers need to “just say no,” to more of the public’s money for cops, guns and jails. For public service addiction to the taxpayer’s wallet, “cold turkey” may be the only cure.