Former law officers admit 'War on Drugs' waste of money

Drug Legalization
Drug Legalization

Taxpayers across the country pay an estimated $41 billion every year to get drugs off the streets and lock up drug dealers.

Closer to home, the Brown County Sheriff's Department spends more than $2 million a year in the war on drugs.

"When we're talking about the money spent on this war on drugs, it's rather high," said Brown County Sheriff John Gossage.

Is the expenditure worth the fight?

"Yes," answered Gossage. "There's an exorbitant amount of money being spent but I believe the stake holders in this community feel it's very important that we do that."

Gossage certainly isn't in this fight alone. But some who have fought the war on drugs, are now seeing the error of their ways.

"We've had fifty years of the drug war and we still have drugs in our society. Right?" said Lance Buchholtz. "Making it illegal hasn't done anything."

Buchholtz was in law enforcement for 26 years, the last ten as sheriff in Green Lake County.

Buchhotlz retired in 2005, but even before then felt the approach to drugs was wrong and a waste of your taxpayer money. He's in favor of legalizing and regulating all drugs.

"Once you eliminate the prohibition you'd be taxing it and regulating it and controlling it," explained Buchholtz. "The government would be in control of the market. And really that's the only question before us right now. Who's in control of the marketplace? Arresting people hasn't solved the problem."

Buchholtz is a member of LEAP or Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Like the name says he's one of hundreds of former law enforcement officers, judges and district attorneys from around the country who are pushing now to make drugs legal.

Tony Ryan is a member of LEAP and a former Denver police officer who helped pass the amendment legalizing marijuana in Colorado.

FOX11 Investigates caught up with Ryan in Chicago where he was speaking to groups in an effort to win approval for marijuana legislation in Illinois.

"What do you say to the critics who would say legalizing drugs would create more crime, more violence on the streets?" reporter Mark Leland asked Ryan.

"First of all, you have to say it's not just going to be an open do whatever you want," said Ryan outside DePaul University. "It's legalizing so that we can do like tobacco and alcohol, regulate and control. Right now it's just illegal and our only option is to arrest people."

A Harvard University study conducted in 2005 found then that legalizing marijuana could save nearly $8 billion a year nationwide in enforcement efforts. Taxing and regulating the drug could also generate more than $6 billion a year, for a total benefit to taxpayers of $14 billion.

LEAP points to Colorado to show taxpayers the financial benefits can be a reality. Police are making fewer arrests, and licensing and taxing, created by legalizing marijuana, is expected to bring in more than $70 million a year.

And LEAP contends legalization will reduce overall crime by making the drug legal.

Brown County District Attorney David Lasee says that reasoning is misguided.

"Well it would reduce crime if we were to legalize sexual assault and murder, that would reduce crime as well. Doesn't mean it's a smart thing to do," said Lasee.

Lasee says most crimes--like property crimes, violent crimes-- have a link to drugs.

"I'm not sure it would actually reduce the overall number of crimes to legalize drugs," said Lasee. "There are other problems associated with drugs and those crimes would increase if more people were able to freely use."

A quarter of the work load for the Brown County District Attorney's Office is currently directly related to the possession or distribution of drugs. The Brown County Drug Task Force made a record 648 drug arrests last year, the majority for marijuana.

Law enforcement, though, has eased off over the years when it comes to marijuana. Dane County has a policy not to charge for personal use possession cases of less than 25 grams. That policy was put into place in 2007 because of the number of cases coming in and a shortage of prosecutors. In Brown County there is no set policy, but minor possession cases don't end up in court.

"Our law enforcement officials understand if someone has a very small amount of personal use marijuana that doesn't necessarily need to be referred over here for criminal charges," said Lasee.

Wisconsin is seeing greater public acceptance of marijuana. Fifty percent of registered voters in Wisconsin favor making it legal, according to the most recent Marquette Law School poll.

Bolstered by the poll results, Wisconsin State Representative Melissa Sargent last month introduced legislation to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Wisconsin, isn't likely to pass the measure, but it is now one of 16 states with pending legislation.

All states are watching Colorado and Washington where recreational use for marijuana is legal.

"We'll be able to look at Colorado and see what the effects of overall legalization is. And based on what happens in Colorado we'll be able to make public policy decisions here in Wisconsin," said State Representative Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield.

Kooyenga wants to wait four or five years to review what happens in Colorado.

LEAP and its members will be watching too, looking to take the next step.

"It will cause us to take a harder look at all the rest of the drugs and how we deal with those," said Ryan.