When Richard Nixon declared his War on Drugs in 1971, his aim was to criminalize a distinct enemy: those hand-in-hand, flower-toting, big-grin smiling, cannabis consuming, consciousness-exploring anti-Vietnam War hippies of an anti-Nixonian persuasion. In order for the President to feel confident about his reelection chances in ’72, those political enemies of his had to be stymied.
If Nixon’s administration could criminalize the consumption of certain plants and chemicals, and enforce that criminalization with furious zeal, they thought that they just might be able to quell the increasingly influential voices of the New Left.
Enter Jack Cole. Cole was a young police officer in New Jersey at the time of Nixon’s proclamation. He was appointed to be an undercover narcotics agent in 1970, one of many patrol officers who became narcs when Nixon’s administration began to threaten pulling federal dollars to states that failed to meet quotas for drug arrests. But there were very few drugs or drug users in the officers’ suburban terrain.
So it was that Jersey’s narcs traversed tunnels and bridges to buy drugs in New York. They then worked to infiltrate groups of students, befriending them with charm and convincing hippie garb. Once they gained the trust of their supposed friends, they would suggest some after-class pot smoking. So it came to be that normally law-abiding students joined in cyphers with cops.
One tactic that Cole and countless other officers used to ensure that they could meet their high drug conviction quotas was to pass the Dutchie around in a circle, expecting that it would continue to be passed from person to person. From the law’s perspective, any physical exchange of any quantity of any variety of illicit drugs from one person’s hand to another’s was considered distribution. Forget money, the hallmark of any real-life drug deal. The simplest social sharing of drugs landed countless of otherwise innocent young people years in prison and a felony conviction.
Lieutenant Jack Cole retired from law enforcement in 1991. In 2002, Cole found redemption, helping to found Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a Medford-based non-profit comprised of former and current law enforcement and criminal justice officials who speak about the human rights catastrophes that have resulted from the War on Drugs.
Tufts Students for Sensible Drug Policy has been fortunate enough to host Cole for three presentations on the failures of drug prohibition. I have heard first-hand his stories about infiltrating, framing, and arresting young people. Cole is now one of the most influential and respected anti-prohibition activists in the US, and he has helped to usher in an era in which 52% of Americans support cannabis legalization, according to results from a Pew Research Center poll released last week.
But until last week, residents of Massachusetts, living in one of the most progressive pot states in the country, could still be prosecuted for cannabis distribution if caught sharing their decriminalized buds with friends under the same antiquated law that Cole used at the start of drug war hysteria. On Friday, though, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that sharing pot is not distribution, and thus no longer criminal. In two cases, argued and won by the ACLU, unwarranted police searches and arrests for cannabis possession of under an ounce proved to be illegal, even under the Commonwealth’s argument that “social sharing” is distribution, and therefore deserves to be punished with a two year prison sentence.
Thanks in large part to the changing public consensus surrounding the Drug War and cannabis prohibition, inspired by heroes like Jack Cole and a growing movement of like-minded activists, a formerly favorite tactic of thousands of narcotics agents has been effectively ruled useless in Massachusetts. The War on Drugs was initiated as the wars in Southeast Asia began to subside, and the drug war is the longest war in American history. Today, a new anti-war crusade is nearing its tipping point, fighting to dismantle systems of mass incarceration, international violence and terrorism, and suppression of mindfulness. Victory is not guaranteed, but we are winning.
Jonathan Green is a sophomore majoring in philosophy and American Studies. He can be reached at Jonathan.Green@tufts.edu.