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The Brave Cop

By admin | May 28, 2009

monday mag

The Brave Cop

Posted By: Jason Youmans
02/18/2009 8:00 AM

Vic PD officer steps up to the Cannabis Convention podium to critique the war on drugs

Responding to a rash of gang-related shootings and under pressure to reassure the public that Lower Mainland streets are safe, British Columbia premier Gordon Campbell announced last week the hiring of 168 additional police officers, 10 new special prosecutors and the imposition of stiffer penalties for gun crimes fuelled by turf wars over the province’s lucrative drug trade.

This announcement, and the almost daily shoot-outs between young men in Greater Vancouver’s suburbs, provided a fitting backdrop for Victoria’s 10th annual Cannabis Convention at the University of Victoria last Sunday, an event where keynote speakers from a variety of backgrounds laid bare all that is wrong with current government policy toward psychoactive substances—namely, that prohibition causes more harm than good.

And it was refreshing to see that the logic of legalization is beginning to spread beyond the confines of activism and academia, as demonstrated by the presence—much to the surprised delight of conference organizer Ted Smith—of one David Bratzer, a Victoria Police Department patrol officer who, when not in uniform, is a member of LEAP—Law Enforcement Against Prohibition—a U.S.-based organization whose Canadian membership includes former chief coroner and Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell, as well as retired B.C. provincial court judge Jerry Paradis. Vancouver East NDP MP Libby Davies also sits on the organization’s advisory board.

Looking a little nervous to be associating with a room full of believers in the healing properties of the herbal remedy, (Bratzer made a hasty escape when his time at the podium was up), and taking pains to ensure that all present understood he was there on his own time and not representing the Vic PD, the clean-cut cop offered up what his experience walking the beat has taught him about the war on drugs.

He defended his ability to publicly critique the drug war, despite his current occupation, by noting that Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms extends the right of freedom of expression to all Canadians, police officers included.

And lest anyone accuse him of being soft, Bratzer said he is no “bleeding-heart liberal,” and that, in his opinion, drugs cause harm to those who use them. Lengthy caveats aside, Bratzer’s critique of the prohibition regime was blistering.

He told the audience that drug prohibition perpetuates a high level of crime, both acquisitive—damage to property from people producing drugs or stealing to feed their habits—and violent, as the recent outbreak of gunplay in Vancouver demonstrates on an almost daily basis.

Bratzer argued the recent “targeted shootings” in Vancouver are a direct result of the prohibition regime and the high profit margins it creates and should henceforth be referred to as “drug-prohibition deaths.”

He cited the irrationality of producers growing marijuana in rental homes—rather than in fields under the sun—as an example of the property damage that prohibition inevitably causes.

Bratzer continued that drug prohibition increases public disorder by forcing users into public places and added that prohibition laws, flouted by those who regularly use drugs, cause people to be less deferential toward other laws, thereby weakening civil society.

“We have laws that a broad segment of the population are ignoring,” he said, which in turn undermines people’s respect for all laws.

He added that by handing complete control of the drug trade to criminals, it becomes more difficult to conduct rigorous scientific study of both the negative and positive implications of drugs and more difficult for the general public to accept the evidence.

The Vic PD officer even pondered what could be done with the “peace dividend”—the government revenue streams that could be created if the war on drugs was brought to a close—a query that was met with cries of “Education,” “Health care,” and “Affordable housing,” by those in the crowd.

Sensing he was preaching to the converted, Bratzer told the audience that perhaps his future speaking engagements would be better taken to Rotary clubs and other organizations whose outlook on the issue might veer more toward the conservative.

Regardless, his message was clear. “Experience, history and common sense tells us that prohibition doesn’t work,” Bratzer said.

Meanwhile, his Victoria Police Department employers say so long as Bratzer doesn’t lead audiences to believe he is speaking on behalf of the force, he has the right to share his personal opinions.

“As long as it doesn’t impact his duties as a police officer, then it won’t be an issue,” says Vic PD spokesperson Sgt. Grant Hamilton. “As long as he can remain unbiased and uphold what he swore an oath to do, then there will be no problem.”

Hamilton suggests Bratzer’s outlook on the drug war could change with time.

“He’s only been a police officer for three years, so he’s fairly new to the profession,” says Hamilton. “Those are his views now, and it remains to be seen whether those views stay the same when he actually has a little more time in and sees some of the effects that we see, or that I’ve seen, from the drug issues we encounter on the street.”

Cannabis conference organizer Ted Smith seemed almost disbelieving that after several high-profile police raids on his Cannabis Buyers Club over the years, he was able to introduce a serving member of the Victoria Police Department to the microphone.

“I definitely sense it’s a very positive step forward to have active law enforcement officers in this country willing and able to question the war on drugs in general—not just the war on cannabis,” Smith told Monday.

“It’s a step forward to encourage people in other areas similar to law enforcement that they can question these laws and their careers and lives are not going to be put at risk and their intelligence is not going to be questioned as a result of that,” he continued. “Society is ready for this kind of debate, just like we were ready to start debating gay marriages decades ago—and now we have it.”

But serious, open debate on the subject among lawmakers and those tasked with enforcing those laws remains a rarity.

Tony Smith, a retired 28-year veteran of the Vancouver Police Department and LEAP member, asserts that the views expressed by Bratzer are widely held by police officers of all ranks across Canada and the U.S.

“I’m a little disappointed because I strongly believe that a number of senior police officers absolutely agree with us but they are playing a political game,” says Smith. “They absolutely refuse to come out in public and say anything. The highest ranks in some police departments absolutely believe what we are saying but they refuse to come out and say it public.”

The price of that failure, of course, is the status quo and the havoc it wreaks.

“We have a saying at LEAP,” says Tony Smith. “For every drug dealer you arrest, all you create is a job opening.” M

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