Commentary: In the 'War on Drugs,' dissent in considered 'unpatriotic'

Glenn Garvin of The Miami Herald (C.W. Griffin/Miami Herald/MCT)
Glenn Garvin of The Miami Herald (C.W. Griffin/Miami Herald/MCT) MCT

I owe Kyle Vogt an apology. A former military policeman, he’s now a member of a group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, a group of former cops, prosecutors and judges that supports ending the war on drugs.

When I interviewed Vogt for a column earlier this year, everything he said about the high cost and low results of the war on drugs made perfect sense. But he made one claim which, though I smiled politely, I didn’t believe and didn’t use in my column: that dozens and dozens of drug cops have contacted LEAP to express their support.

“They’re afraid,” Vogt said. “Any policeman who says he thinks drugs should be legalized gets fired.” In civil-liberties-conscious America, patrolled by attack squadrons of ACLU lawyers? Get real, buddy, I thought. The war on drugs does enough damage without piling on with paranoid delusions.

But in the war on drugs, the line between paranoia and reality turns out to be a thin one indeed. Over the weekend, The New York Times carried a story on Bryan Gonzalez, a young agent fired by the U.S. Border Patrol. Grounds for dismissal: Gonzalez told another agent that legalizing marijuana would save lives both in the United States and Mexico. And he mentioned LEAP.

When the other agent reported the conversation to his superiors, it triggered an internal affairs investigation that ended with an official letter dismissing Gonzalez for holding “personal views that were contrary to core characteristics of Border Patrol Agents, which are patriotism, dedication and esprit de corps.”

For starters, that sentence is a flat-out lie. The Border Patrol’s “core values,” according to its own web page, are serving the American public “with vigilance, integrity and professionalism.” There’s not a single word about patriotism, dedication or esprit de corps.

But what if there was? Since when is it unpatriotic to advocate a change in the U.S. criminal code? If Gonzalez had told his fellow Border Patrol agent that he thought prison terms for drug smugglers should be doubled, would that have been unpatriotic, too?

Gonzalez did not light up a joint or bring a pan of Alice B. Toklas brownies to work. He did not let a drug smuggler go. He did not even sell guns to the Sinaloa Cartel. (Though, to be fair, that’s apparently not a firing offense in the Obama administration.) All he did was express an opinion.

But, as Kyle Vogt tried to tell me, having the wrong opinion about the war on drugs is enough to get you fired from a law-enforcement job these days:

Last month, former Arizona probation officer Joe Miller filed suit to get his job back after being fired for signing a letter in support of a ballot initiative (in another state!) to legalize personal use of marijuana.

Jonathan Wender, a sergeant in the Mountlake Terrace, Washington, police department, was fired for supporting the decriminalization of marijuana. He won a court case that got him an $815,000 settlement plus his job back, but decided to quit anyway.

Canada, which hosted so many American draft dodgers trying to stay out of the war in Vietnam, is apparently taking a less tolerant view of dissent from its own war on drugs. When city officials in Victoria, British Columbia, invited local cop David Bratzer to give a speech outlining his support for legalization, Bratzer’s chief canceled it, then warned him not to criticize drug laws while within the city limits.

Clearly, the war on drugs has escalated to a war on talking about the war on drugs.

I’m sorry I doubted Vogt. As the old joke goes, even paranoids have real enemies. Though nobody’s laughing at this one.

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