Lt. James Sartell of the Hollis Police Department has been a police officer for 15 years. He has made hundreds, maybe even thousands of arrests.
When it comes to theft or burglary, he says, the motive invariably is the same.
"Drugs," he said. "Basically, without exception."
With the recent high-profile arrest of Hollis farmer David Orde and his son, Andrew Orde, for possession of several marijuana plants, many people in the area again started talking about the War on Drugs, the legalization of marijuana and the repercussions of using and possessing it.
As the case against Orde and his son lingers in the courts, several New Hampshire lawmakers are again filing legislation to decriminalize marijuana. This latest legislation would allow marijuana use for medicinal uses, similar to measures in Maine and Vermont.
During the last election, voters in Massachusetts took a bolder step, reducing the offense of marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to a violation. Possession of less than an ounce gets you a $100 fine.
Up here in the land of "Live Free or Die" license plates, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana will get you a night in handcuffs and a date in front of a judge.
First used in 1971 by President Nixon, the term "War on Drugs" has been a crucial talking point ever since.
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the federal government spent more than $19 billion in 2003 on the War on Drugs at a rate of about $600 per second. State and local governments spent another $30 billion. The budget has since been increased by more than a billion dollars.
Simple marijuana (cannabis) possession is the fourth most common cause of arrest in the United States, according to the FBI, costing $7 billion annually. An American is now arrested for violating cannabis laws every 38 seconds.
But how do law enforcement personnel feel about the time, money, energy and stacks of paperwork surrounding the drug war in which the country has been involved for decades?
Sartell says marijuana can cause "cognitive distortion," leading to a justification of illegal or immoral activities, which in turn allows the user to commit crimes such as burglary or theft in order to feed subsequent drug buys.
"That's one of the main 'gateway' aspects of pot," he said.
Sartell sees "the environment as the key factor" in drug use and experimentation.
"Are the kids supervised?" he asked. "Do they have a parental presence keeping tabs on them?"
Sartell was asked if he feels a futility in his participation in the War on Drugs; whether the "catch-and-release" aspect of arresting repeat offenders is frustrating.
"To me, it isn't about rehabilitating individuals," Sartell said. "It's about quality of life for that dealer's neighbor, for that community. Seeing a police presence, knowing that we are trying to make a difference, that their concerns are heard and considered . . . that's what it's all about."
'The broken window phenomenon'
Sartell discussed "the broken window phenomenon":
"You deal with little problems before they escalate into big ones. The kid that tortures animals grows up to be violent to people. The kid that smashes mailboxes escalates to more serious vandalism. It's the same with the War on Drugs."
Sartell has seen real results stemming from "being a presence" in the lives of wayward youth.
"I've told some of them, 'I'll be stopping by (your house) from time to time, checking up on you. Believe it.' And knowing that I mean it, seeing my commitment to it, has made a difference in their lives. I've even been thanked by some of them," he said with a chuckle.
But not all police officers feel the effort is worth it, in cost of dollars, manpower hours, court appearances and bottom-line results.
Bradley Jardis, of Hooksett, is a police officer in Rockingham County and "the only active-duty rank-and-file law enforcement officer in the country" who is a speaker for LEAP: Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, he said.
"As you can imagine," he said, "it makes me sort of a black sheep."
Founded more than six years ago along the same concept as Vietnam Vets Against the War, LEAP is made up of current and former members of the law enforcement and criminal justice communities who speak out about what they believe are the failures of existing drug policies.
"Those policies have failed, and continue to fail, to effectively address the problems of drug abuse, especially the problems of juvenile drug use, the problems of addiction, and the problems of crime caused by the existence of a criminal black market in drugs," states their Web site, www.leap.cc/cms/index.php.
From addiction to incarceration
Patrolman Jardis is passionate about the work he does with the organization, but stresses that in no way do he or his compatriots condone drug use.
"A lot of people in my profession mistake the position of LEAP," he said. "We do not believe that drugs are good for you – everybody knows drugs are bad. But the current policy of turning all users into criminals begs an interesting question."
Former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama "have both admitted to using cocaine," Jardis said. "The difference between them and the person who got caught is that the person got caught.
"Would these two men be in the same positions they're in today if they'd been caught? They'd be felons."
Jardis believes poor personal choices shouldn't condemn someone to being a criminal for life. He believes more money should go to prevention and education, such as DARE programs, rather than the War on Drugs.
"As we say in LEAP, 'You can get over an addiction; you can't get over a conviction.' If you're 16-year-old caught with drugs, you're tried as an adult and turned into a lifelong criminal," Jardis said. "This policy ruins people's lives."
Lt. Jeff Bukunt of the Youth Services Division at the Nashua Police Department, points out that this isn't necessarily the case, at least in Nashua.
"Many first-time offenders are sent to counseling via a court-diversion program, where they attend meetings and must complete a meaningful project" in lieu of jail time, he said.
This gives them the opportunity to bypass the court system and may keep them from going deeper into the juvenile court system, Bukunt says.
The Youth Council (www.theyouthcouncil.org) is at 112 W. Pearl St., and it offers parents and kids counseling in group or individual settings. Fees are charged by income, and it's a good resource for parents, Bukunt says.
"Treatment is a successful way to approach (drug use), but enforcement is proven to be an effective way, especially with juveniles," Bukunt said.
Bukunt is dedicated to protecting school-age children from getting involved with drugs.
"The dangers are even greater in juvenile use," he said, "because they're still growing, developing, learning and deciding on the paths they'll follow as adults. Marijuana usage creates a loss of interest and apathy in everything – school, work, family – and sets kids up for a lifestyle revolving around using and obtaining drugs."
Bukunt puts forth some sobering statistics: "Drug-using adolescents are three times as likely to attempt suicide; the linkage to crime is indisputable; the majority of runaways we deal with are marijuana users."
Curiosity or to fit into a certain social group are usually the main reasons youngsters try drugs in the first place, Bukunt notes.
Prescriptions for trouble
There is some good news on the War on Drugs: Although Bukunt says "we have made arrests of possession and sale of marijuana" at Nashua schools, Bukunt quotes a recent youth risk behavior survey of high school students by the state Department of Education showing that there has been a slight decrease in drug use since a spike in reported marijuana use in 2003.
His biggest concern is that some "parents have been lulled into thinking that marijuana is a 'safe' drug, say, in comparison with alcohol or harder drugs. It's anything but safe."
Bukunt points out that the marijuana some adults smoked in their own youth had a much lower THC level of 2 percent to 3 percent, as compared with today's levels that can be 12 percent or higher, and that this can be extremely destructive to children and their safety.
Teen driving is a prime example.
"Add marijuana to (teen) driver inexperience, now affecting their ability to concentrate, be alert and their reaction time," Bukunt said. ". . . Marijuana stays in your system 24 hours after smoking."
The Youth Services Division also is seeing legal prescription drugs as a big issue.
They "have always been a problem," Bukunt said. "Parents need to safeguard the prescriptions right in their own homes."
And they need to be present and active participants in their children's lives, Bukunt says.
"Parents who set good examples and are actively engaged in their lives are certainly going to cut down the risk of marijuana use by their children," he said.
Lt. Scott Hammond heads the narcotics team at the Nashua Police Department, and he has been a police officer for 22 years. He sees drugs as a global issue.
"We've seen an increase in assaults, burglary, robbery, other crimes," Hammon said. ". . . We're doing our part on a daily basis. We're out there reassuring people that we're keeping our head above water" in the War on Drugs.
Like his colleague Bukunt, Hammond says it's imperative for the public to participate in preventing youth from starting down the road of drug use.
"It begins with the parents," Hammond said, "along with teachers, drug education like the DARE program. . . . It doesn't start with the police department."
Hammond says the DARE program is working, and they have seen a decrease in marijuana use in juveniles age 10-16.
He reiterates what Lt. Bukunt notes about educating youth: "Funnel more money into kids, into teaching them about drugs, illegal or prescription."
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Telegraph is examining the debate about marijuana in a three-day series in print and online, including the opinions of those who enforce the law, those who make the law and those who run afoul of it.
Hammond stresses that the public can get involved later in the fight, as well.
"If a citizen feels that courts are handing down lenient sentences to repeat dealers, say something," he said. "Get involved."
He notes, though, that New Hampshire does take a stronger tack than our southern neighbor.
"You get caught with 5 ounces of cocaine in Massachusetts, you may get to walk," Hammond said. We treat these things seriously here."
By KATHLEEN PALMER
Published: Sunday, February 8, 2009