Like many who enter law enforcement, Jeff Kaufman joined the New York Police Department in 1980 because he wanted to serve his community. He left six years later because the state’s drug laws made that impossible.
“As cops we need to develop trust with the community to get to people who need our help and protect the public from violence,” Kaufman told me in late January. “We depend on the community to do our jobs, and the War on Drugs created an incredible source of distrust and corruption that made these problems impossible to fight.”
Since 2004 Kaufman has worked with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, an international group of more than 1,000 current and former police officers, judges, prosecutors and other law enforcement professionals who advocate the legalization and control of all drugs as a means to justice and public safety.
Kaufman’s varied 40-year career gave him extensive experience with the problems of the poor. As a prosecutor with the N.Y.P.D.’s Legal Bureau in the mid-1980s, he helped the department seize the property of people who sold or used drugs. “We couldn’t catch the guys with the big bucks, so we went after little people,” he said. “We took their property, anything of value they had, and turned it into police resources.”
When he saw that he was harming people he intended to protect, he left the department to legally defend people accused of drug-related crime. In the mid-1990s he began to teach law to mostly black- and brown-skinned youths facing life sentences at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex. Since the mid-2000s he has taught in public high schools.
“I don’t advocate drug use,” said Kaufman, anticipating his critics. “Some drug counselors think I’m insane. They ask how I could allow these things to be unleashed on our children.”
Those people have it backwards, Kaufman insists. Drugs today are far more dangerous than they need to be. And prohibition unleashed them upon children.
“Cigarettes and alcohol are legal and they are equally or more destructive than many drugs,” Kaufman explained. “Over the years we reduced cigarette use through a major public education campaign. We outlawed it in public buildings and other areas. In a world without prohibition, these regulations would clearly be in place, but in our current uncontrolled market, anyone who uses drugs is exposed to highly concentrated forms that are mixed with dangerous unknown substances. Some of these substances, such as fentanyl, can cause death.”
“Most of my students who use drugs don’t get them from their parents, relatives or friends, but from people who sell them. Now, a small supplier can’t compete in a regulated market. We don’t have people illegally selling alcohol or manufacturing cigarettes in mass quantities, do we? When the conditions that support a black market disappear, who is going to sell these drugs to children? A legal and fully-regulated market would ensure that clean substances are dispensed to informed adults.”
Kaufman says that controlled legalization would make communities less violent and more stable.
“You don’t need to go too far back in history to see that we reversed alcohol prohibition because of the problems it created,” he said. “People who were merely providing substances to people who sought them became criminals who turned to violence to maintain territories in markets. It tore society apart in absolutely awful ways.”
“Today, an incredibly large number of people who did no harm to others have criminal records merely because they used or sold drugs. The law prohibits these people from getting licenses and responsible jobs, so they become very difficult for society to deal with. Drug prohibition creates a cycle in which criminalized people who are excluded from the mainstream economy are pressured to turn to violence to support themselves. It destroys lives and cripples communities.”
Instead, Kaufman said “police should be taking care of bad guys and making neighborhoods habitable. Drugs are a medical problem. Our experience over the decades has shown that the criminal justice method has done nothing to control their supply or widespread use. And because this method diverts scarce department resources, police have fewer means to solve real crimes. Consider, for example, that New York City has a tremendous backlog of untested ‘rape kits’—collections of physical evidence gathered after an alleged sexual assault. If police spent anywhere near as much time investigating rape as they spend investigating drug crimes, many more rapists would be behind bars.”
“In a democracy, police serve the important function of representing the policy of elected government in community problems. But for a whole range of problems officers can’t do that because people are afraid they’ll be arrested for drugs. In the 75th Precinct, people in trouble would refuse to call for help because they didn’t trust us. After I left the department, I struggled thinking about encounters in which I could have been much more helpful to people.”
A version of this piece appeared in the Hudson Valley News.