“Just so we’re clear,” began Peter Christ during our first phone conversation, “if you look in Webster’s Dictionary at the word hypocrite, you will see a picture of me. I believed that this drug war was a stupid fucking idea even before I became a cop.”
For 20 years Officer Christ patrolled the town of Tonawanda, New York, a community of 80,000 just outside of Buffalo. Retiring from the force in 1989 as a Captain, he founded Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization of 3,500 former officers working towards the legalization of all drugs. I flew into Buffalo to join Peter for a drive around his old precinct and a discussion of drug policy. It was immediately clear which of the many idling cars in front of the arrivals hall was his. The license plate simply read: CHRIST.
We greeted one another and shook hands. “How did you beat all the Christians in the state of New York for that one?” I asked, pointing back towards the vanity plate.
The youthful 66 year old, with his ponytail and gold earring turned up his hands and grinned. “I was a cop,” he offered puckishly.
“OK, fair enough. Let’s talk about drugs.”
“My favorite topic.”
Peter drove as we talked.
“As an officer, what was your experience with the drug war?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you,” Peter began with a voice like a disc jockey – every word played for maximum effect. “By the time I was on the job four years, it became very evident to me that no matter how vigorously I or my brother and sister officers worked, it didn’t make any difference. We would have a series of burglaries or rapes in our community, somebody would arrest the burglar or the rapist, and for a while we wouldn’t have any more of those crimes. But no matter how many drug arrests we made, it didn’t make any difference. Because those people weren’t victims, they were willing participants in an economic transfer. It’s called business.”
“So, what’s your rationale for legalization?”
“Let me ask you, Roc,” he began, pausing dramatically “do you believe we can win the war on drugs?”
I took a breath.
He raised his hand. “Now, before you answer, let’s define what victory means. Nixon never told us what victory would look like when he declared this war, but it’s a war after all and we know how wars end – they end when you defeat the enemy. We won the Second World War. That means that we don’t fight the Germans or the Japanese or the Italians every six months, right? So, I’m gonna say, if we win the war on drugs, we’ve taken the words marijuana and heroin out of the dictionary. The drugs are gone. Let’s move on. Do you believe that is possible?”
“I don’t think so, Peter.”
“Right, and whenever I’m speaking at a Rotary Club or a Lion’s Club, and I ask the same question, not a hand goes up – nobody. I say, then let’s be honest. There will never be a drug-free America. Drugs are always going to be a part of our culture. So, the question becomes: Who do you want to control the marketplace – gangsters, thugs, and terrorists, or licensed businesspeople with regulation and control? That’s the only discussion we can have, and it’s the one we’re not having.”
“So, how did LEAP get started?” I asked.
“The idea for LEAP was based on a little group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I remember back in the early 70’s watching those people speak in front of an audience. Whether that audience agreed with their conclusion about the war or not, nobody had the audacity to look at them and say, ‘You don’t understand the problem.’ Back before LEAP, if you were going to have a debate about drug policy, at one podium would be the nun, the judge, or the cop, and at the other podium would be the crazy hippy who’d be saying, ‘Hey man, drugs are cool!’ It’s not hard to figure out where that debate is going to go. Let me give you a little example of how LEAP has changed that debate. If you want to put the current Drug Czar, a guy by the name of Kerlikowske, a former chief of police of Seattle, Washington at one podium… You know who we’re going to put on the other podium? A guy by the name of Norm Stamper, another former chief of police of Seattle, Washington. So, now it isn’t who are you going to believe, the hippy or the cop, but which police chief of Seattle, Washington are you going to believe?”
As we drove, Peter narrated his memories. “See that bridge?”
“We had a gunman under there once, shot a bunch of people.”
The conversation caught for just a moment as we both scanned the bridge.
“So how does all of this play at the Rotary Clubs?” I asked. “What’s your conversion rate like?”
“My very first week, I signed up 10 percent of the audience,” he answered. “The next week I signed up 25% and it’s been about the same ever since.”
“We have these little gold lapel-pin badges that say LEAP on them. They cost us about a nickel apiece. I didn’t have ‘em the first week. The second week, I could say, ‘And if you sign up today, you’ll get one of these little gold lapel-pin badges.’ They like the sparkly stuff. Here, you can see for yourself.”
“Nice. And I notice you’ve got a scale at the center of badge so you can weigh your drugs, huh?”
“Yeah, if you have a mind to!”
“So what reasons do the skeptical 75% give for continuing the war?”
“Oh, they say things like, ‘If you legalize drugs, you’re condoning drug use.’ And I say, ‘No, I am not talking about the drugs. I am talking about the policy.’ If you look back to the alcohol prohibition repeal movement, nobody was defending alcohol. Nobody was saying ‘Oh, it’s really not that bad! It’s got medical uses!’ We learned that alcohol did not create people like Al Capone, prohibition of alcohol created people like Al Capone. And the problems that the Al Capones brought in were greater than the problems we had with the alcohol in the first place. These things we call drug-related shootings – these aren’t drug-related shootings. These are drug-business-related shootings. We are fighting against the flawed policy of prohibiting consensual adult behavior.”
“How does this resonate politically? Are you aligned with any particular party or ideology, for example?”
“You want to know what I really am, Roc? I’m a hardcore Marxist.”
“Now, just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about Karl. I’m talking about Groucho.”
“I love that. How did somebody like you end up as a cop?”
“I only got into police work for one reason, and that’s because I wanted to save the world from all the evil people… (Laughter) No, that’s not the reason. At 17 years old, I promised myself I would not have to work past my 45th birthday. I had to get some place that had a 20 year retirement. Here is my definition of retirement: I don’t have to put a smile on another person’s face in order to eat.”
“So you wanted your freedom and it just so happened that the best way to get it was to take away other people’s?”
“That’s pretty wise. Well, one of the excuses I like to offer for my bad behavior is, if I was a construction worker, who would be listening to me today?”
“That’s pretty convenient.”
“Yes it is. Now, take a look over at that river. That’s the Niagara River. Between 1920 and 1933, my Great Uncle Walter owned a boat. He lived on that river and on the other side was a heathen country called Canada who had alcohol for sale. Now, my uncle wasn’t a gangster. He was an opportunist – like most of the people in the drug trade today.”
The unremarkable suburbs and strip malls of Tonawanda flowed by, indistinguishable. It looked like any other American town. We pulled up in front of an auto shop.
“I want to see if a good friend of mine is here,” Peter announced.
We strolled in to find a handsome Polish man with a prominent gap between his two front teeth standing behind a counter. “Hey, old timer!” he shouted.
“Hey, Stan!” Peter called out.
We talked Cold War politics for a while – the difference between east and west. Finally, Peter said, “You used to do some smuggling between Poland and Germany, didn’t you Stan? You used to drive back and forth across the border a whole bunch of times.”
“That’s right,” Stan beamed.
“Smuggling what?” I asked.
“Ohh… Auto parts, cigarettes, gold Krugerrands, books, synthetic diamonds, Russian caviar… You could sell them in West Berlin for 10 times the price, but I was doing it almost not for profit! It was all for fun!”
“You ever get caught?”
“Of course not! You take the back lamp out and you’ve got fricken so much space! It’s so easy, you can never ever ever ever find it.”
“That’s exactly the kind of entrepreneurial opportunist spirit you’ve been talking about, isn’t it Peter?” I asked.
“Absolutely.” he confirmed.
We jumped back in the car and headed across town, meandering through a neighborhood of vinyl-sided condominums on the way. “These are the Tonawanda projects,” Peter remarked, cruising at the leisurely crawl of a cop out looking for trouble, A few minutes later and had we turned the corner into Peter’s old police station.
“You used to run this place, right?” I asked.
“That’s right,” Peter confirmed.
We strolled into the main lobby. There, high on the wall of retirees, was a faded picture of a young Peter Christ complete with period-appropriate moustache. Peter announced himself to the nervous-looking rookie manning the main desk, saying he wanted to show me around. The rookie made a call. The answer came back: No.
“I’m sorry,” the rookie said.
“Are you following an order?” Peter asked.
“Then you don’t apologize for it.”
“I think it must have something to do with heightened security after the Boston Bombing,” Peter said to me somewhat improbably. I don’t think he believed it either.
On the way back to the car, we met a cop in uniform stepping out of his patrol car.
“Do you know who I am?” Peter asked him.
“Mr. Christ, right?” the cop responded.
“That’s right. What’s your name? Schmitt? I used to work with your dad. This guy’s from VICE Magazine. He’s doing a story about LEAP.”
“Hi, officer,” I said, “What do you think about LEAP?”
“Ah, dude,” Officer Schmitt replied, “I can’t give you any opinions about anything right now. Thank you. Sorry. Not trying to be a jerk. If I say something the chief disagrees with…”
“Mr. Schmitt may have a lot of opinions…” Peter started.
“But,” the man interjected, “Officer Schmitt has none,”
The sun was setting as we drove back to Buffalo.
“Do you ever miss being a cop?” I asked.
“There’s an old phrase,” Peter began, “that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I would change the beginning of that phrase to be: power intoxicates. That was a very intoxicating period of my life. But, there’s one thing I’ve always remembered that kept my sanity during that time. My mother used to say that a fool is a person who, when meeting another human being for the first time, does not first observe the mirror. I was taught that when I walked up to a stranger, the first thing I noticed was my own reflection. I made arrests, and I always got a little flash of the mirror. And it reminded me that I wasn’t in this situation because I was special. I was in this situation because fate happened to be twisted this way, and you could twist it in another way and this guy would be putting the cuffs on me.”