Ray Strack worked as a U.S. Customs special agent on JFK International Airport’s drug squad in New York during his 27-year career. He constantly busted people — two per day on average — who were attempting to smuggle narcotics into the country. But today, the now-retired Strack is working to get drugs legalized.
As a spokesperson for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a nonprofit organization founded in 2002, Strack is part of a movement of police officers and government agents who decry the country’s failed drug policies. Prohibition, they say, only increases the value of illicit substances and creates incentive for dealers to profit. It does nothing to stop drug use, yet criminalization sends too many people to jail and destroys families. Permitting drugs while closely regulating them, LEAP posits, would free up resources for officers to instead tackle violent crime. As Florida grapples with the possibility of legalizing marijuana in the coming year, LEAP is looking to get into the conversation.
“I came across LEAP after retirement and liked what they were doing because their theory and social construct is powerful,” Strack says. “LEAP is not about free reign of having drugs legalized willy-nilly but about removing the criminal element that controls drugs and bringing it back to regulated reforms that benefit us all.”
Strack, age 56, says that while he worked as a customs agent, he felt defeat was inevitable in the “war on drugs.” When he was assigned to Florida, he felt the futility of trying to intercept every single drug boat that came into the country. Some Florida municipalities — including Broward County — are developing policies that fine people rather than arrest them for marijuana violations. That’s a good start, Strack says, but still not the right way to go.
Much like groups such as Regulate Florida, which is pushing to get the legalization of recreational marijuana onto the 2016 ballot, LEAP preaches the importance of regulation over prohibition. People are always going to get their hands on weed, Strack reasons, whether legally or illegally. The answer, he says, is to control that access and to regulate it. That, in turn, would eliminate drug dealers and save the state millions.
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“During all this time fighting the so-called war on drugs, nobody looked at what our nation’s drug policies have cost us,” he says. “And the cost is not only monetary but to young people, who have been used as pawns by both sides.”
LEAP stands in stark contrast to the Florida Sheriff’s Association, which is also made up of law enforcement agents but whose position is to keep marijuana illegal. Strack is aware of the opposition and what he calls its “cherry-picking” of stats to try to prove its case. But Strack believes that more and more police officers and law enforcement agents agree with LEAP’s message over the Florida Sheriff’s Association’s.
“Rank-and-file law enforcement officers want these laws to change,” Strack says. “I guarantee you that. Law enforcement agencies and governmental organizations profit on the war on drugs, and the Florida Sheriff’s Association is largely made up of good ol’ boys with a large bureaucratic entity that profits off making sure marijuana remains illegal. But I think the majority of current cops protecting the streets of our state want the laws to change. But they’re doing what they’re told. They’re doing their jobs.”
LEAP has plans to spread its message with town hall meetings in the coming year, with Strack speaking for the group at these events. As for the prospect of marijuana legalization in Florida, Strack realizes it’ll be an uphill battle. But he believes the tide is turning. “I believe that we, as a state, will prove the naysayers wrong that say Florida would never pull this off, that legalization is possible in certain progressive states only,” Strack says. “My core beliefs on drugs have never changed. What’s changed is how can we diminish the negative effects of drugs through regulation.”