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Rethinking Drug Prohibition

Backed by a growing roster of politicians, health officers, and legal experts, a single beat cop blows the whistle on prohibition
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Constable David Bratzer
Constable David Bratzer David Fierro

Backed by a growing roster of politicians, health officers, and legal experts,
a single beat cop blows the whistle on prohibition

For all the hype, says Const. David Bratzer, the life of a downtown cop is about wordplay more often than gunplay. As the scores of drug offenders who’ve served jail time at his insistence will attest, his main weapon isn’t his service revolver, it’s polite, persistent persuasion. As he unrolls his six-foot frame from a floatplane in Vancouver harbour on a humid summer morning, that’s a weapon he plans to level once again at the very drug laws he’s charged with enforcing. “It’s tough for a cop to admit,” he says, heading down the wharf while buttoning his charcoal jacket, “but our laws just don’t make sense.”

Today’s plan is to sell that message around town as forcefully as possible. Bratzer, 35, serves with the Victoria police department, but he is also a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Thanks largely to his relentless campaigning in recent years, LEAP is starting to gather momentum in B.C.: today’s first task is to open a Canadian bank account and deposit $5,000 in seed money from American donors. Then he’s heading to West Vancouver to meet Dr. Evan Wood, a UBC researcher who also believes drug prohibition does more harm than good in criminalizing what is in large measure a mental health issue. Together, they have an 11 a.m. appointment with John Weston, MP for West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast and a member of the Conservative caucus that last March enacted the toughest drug prohibitions in Canadian history, increasing federal drug enforcement budgets while cutting funds for treatment programs. Next, he’s scheduled to meet with Darrell Mussatto, mayor of North Vancouver. In between, there will be time for a quick lunch with Martin Millerchip, editor of the North Shore News. Tomorrow morning, he’ll be back in uniform. “You could say I lead a double life,” Bratzer muses while heading over the Lions Gate Bridge, “but I don’t. It’s not inconsistent to enforce drug prohibitions while criticizing them. It’s my duty to do both.”

Standing in the morning sunshine on the sidewalk out front of Weston’s office in a low-rise commercial building on 17th Street, Bratzer quickly summarizes his speaking points. Honed in scores of meetings with powerbrokers across North America, his policy advice is concise: politicians, having hugely oversold tough-on-crime messages to voters spooked by violent crime, need to take a more responsible approach. Law enforcement officers across British Columbia are weary of imposing drug prohibitions that devour the bulk of police, court, and prison budgets yet have negligible impact on the complex factors propelling drug use. For a start, Bratzer argues, marijuana—which 35 percent of people aged 15 to 24 in B.C. are estimated to have smoked in the last year—should be decriminalized and commercialized within the same sort of regulatory frameworks governing booze and tobacco. Tax B.C.’s 430,000 pot smokers, Bratzer will urge Weston (who in March voted to force judges to issue mandatory minimum jail sentences for petty pot offenders) and use the resulting government income to fund programs to rescue people from drug-related suffering. Only barbarians, his logic goes, would criminalize people suffering from mental-health afflictions such as addiction. “For 40 years we’ve waged a war on drugs here in B.C. and around the world that has flatly failed, even while creating immense carnage and misery,” Bratzer sums up as Wood, also wearing a grey suit, arrives. “As so many police officers will privately tell you, prohibition itself is by far the biggest part of what makes drugs so incredibly dangerous to so many people. The time is long overdue for police officers to start saying so publicly.”

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