It's understandable why when many people first see Howard Wooldridge, they might at first think he's a crank.
The slender, mustachioed man of middle-age frequently wears a cowboy hat, and has been known to get around town on a horse. He also wears a black shirt with loud, conspicuous lettering on both the front and back. You'd be forgiven to dismiss him as a religious zealot proclaiming the coming apocalypse, or a disciple of Lyndon Larouche.
But look closer. The shirt reads: "COPS SAY LEGALIZE DRUGS: ASK ME WHY."
And people do.
"I get stopped just about everywhere," he says. "The shirt works. I have several different for different occasions – I can get my point across in 30 seconds in an elevator, a few minutes in a restaurant, or full-blown speech at a Rotary Club."
If he doesn't leave people convinced, he at least leaves them asking the right questions.
So does Norm Stamper, former police chief for the city of Seattle.
"People ask how a former cop could say drugs should be legalized, but it's precisely because I love police and love police work that I'm saying it. The drug war stops real cops from doing real police work. It's corrupting. It's wasteful. And it has wrecked communities."
Wooldridge and Stamper are featured speakers for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a relatively new but powerfully motivated group of current and former police officers, judges, prosecutors, and politicians who have come out against America's failed war on drugs.
LEAP was founded in 2002 by Jack Cole, a 26-year veteran of the New Jersey State Police. Cole spent 12 of those years as an undercover narcotics detective. According to his bio, it was his post-retirement struggle with the "emotional residue" left over from his work as a narcotics officer that led him to the realization that the war on drugs has failed.
After forming LEAP, Cole, Wooldridge, and three other founding members hit the public speaking circuit, talking to government classes, Rotary Clubs, and campus organizations. They wrote op-eds for local newspapers, and they debated on radio programs. In just under five years, LEAP now claims more than 6,500 members.
Proponents of drug prohibition tend to dismiss reform groups like NORML or the Drug Policy Alliance as fringe ideologues (politicians seem fond of dismissing the latter group for no other reason than that it gets its funding from George Soros). But when decorated police officers, former police chiefs, and ex-judges and prosecutors speak up, audiences can't help but take notice.
These aren't stoners. They're former public servants, and many risked their lives for a cause they now say is mistaken.
That's powerful stuff. When a guy tells you he regrets what he's done for most of his career -- and what he could well have died for -- his words take on a unique credibility and urgency.
One common characteristic you'll find in many members of LEAP is guilt. Most of these former officers lug around a weighty burden. Many concede they realized early in their careers that the drug war was a failure, and would always be a failure. They regret now that they didn't speak up sooner.