The war on drugs, Jack Cole said, has been "far worse" than a failure.
Speaking to about 75 students Thursday afternoon at Slippery Rock University, Mr. Cole, a retired New Jersey State Police narcotics detective and a co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, called it "a self-perpetuating and constantly expanding policy disaster."
Mr. Cole, who will be speaking in Pittsburgh at noon today at the Rotary Club of Pittsburgh's Northside, 701 N. Point Drive, said 43 years of drug prohibition, millions of arrests and an estimated $1 trillion spent on law enforcement and incarceration have failed to put a dent in drug supplies or their purity, price and rate of use or the explosion in associated crime.
"Once we start treating drug abuse as a health problem instead of a crime problem, we won't have to arrest and sacrifice on the altar of the drug war 1.7 million people a year who we arrest for nonviolent drug offenses, which is what we do today," said Mr. Cole, whose international nonprofit, composed partly of former police officers, prosecutors and judges, supports drug legalization.
He added that the nation's drug policy has also helped to make the United States the world's leader in per capita incarceration, a phenomenon disproportionately affecting blacks.
"The war on drugs has also been the most devastating single destructive social policy since slavery," Mr. Cole said.
His visit to Western Pennsylvania comes as the region has grappled with a rash of overdose deaths linked to fentanyl-laced heroin and the General Assembly considers a bill that would legalize cannabis for medical use and another that would legalize the "consumption of marijuana for adults over the age of 21, without regard to the purpose of that consumption."
Mr. Cole said overdose deaths, including the nearly two dozen in Western Pennsylvania tied to the laced batches of heroin, could be prevented by setting up Switzerland-style programs that provide the drug to addicts at supervised centers. With 20 states and the District of Columbia allowing medical marijuana programs and two states legalizing recreational use, drug policy in the U.S. is at a "tipping point," he said.
"The alternative policy is to try remove the profit motive from drug sales, and the only way you can do that is by ending prohibition by legalizing all drugs," he said.
Mr. Cole also argued that the attention police devote to drug work detracts from their ability to solve homicides, robberies, rapes and other crimes.
"The role of a police officer should never be to try to protect every adult human being from themselves by saying what they can put in their bodies. And it's when we're given that task that everything goes bad," Mr. Cole said, referencing the spike in gangland murder that alcohol prohibition created.
According to numbers provided by Pittsburgh police, about 19 percent of the 15,798 arrests the bureau made last year were drug related. Of the 3,023 drug arrests in 2013, 1,236 were related to marijuana possession.
David Evans, a New Jersey lawyer who works as a special adviser to the Drug Free America Foundation, a nonprofit that has opposed marijuana legalization, said calling the war on drugs a failure was akin to calling the fight against cancer a flop because the disease still exists.
He said medical marijuana has not been proven to be safe or effective and that the health and social impacts of legalizing drugs far outweigh any perceived benefits, such as tax revenue.
"There's this perception that people are in the criminal justice system for smoking a few joints and that's absolutely not true," said Mr. Evans, a former public defender in Newark, adding that many marijuana charges are often incidental to other, more serious offenses. "It's not like cops are walking around looking for kids smoking pot."
Drug legalization means an increase in use and the problems that might come with it, from "drugged driving" to "big marijuana" advertising campaigns similar to tobacco and alcohol companies, he said.
"The complete legalization of drugs will result in millions more people using drugs," he said. "The rest of us are going to have to pay for that damage."
Robert Zullo: email@example.com or 412-263-3909.