Former cop is 'linchpin' of campaign to legalize marijuana

Not long after Neill Franklin stepped behind a lectern in Annapolis to argue for making marijuana legal, the retired law enforcement officer was fighting tears again.

It happens all the time — whenever he pauses to think of the futility of the war on drugs and the lives he says have been wasted. "We've been at this forever," he said. "It never worked."


As a broadening coalition pushes to legalize marijuana in Maryland this year, advocates have turned to Franklin to help sell the idea. A top official of the state's American Civil Liberties Union calls him "the linchpin" of the advocacy campaign.

"When he talks about the drug war, he knows what he's talking about," said Sara Love, public policy director with the ACLU of Maryland. "He's been out on the street, he's arrested people — and realized at the end that those arrests haven't helped anybody."


Fit and trim at 55, Franklin wanders the halls of the State House, looking for lawmakers to catch in casual conversation. He drives more than 90 minutes from his home near the Pennsylvania border, just on the off chance he might connect with someone who could vote to make marijuana available at retail stores.

If asked, Franklin acknowledges his endgame is to legalize all manner of drugs. In Annapolis, he keeps his pitch to why the state should legalize marijuana: The substance is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, he argues, but its underground marketplace drives violence and finances drug cartels. And the unfair enforcement — the same enforcement he once pursued — sends twice as many blacks as whites to jail for marijuana possession.

Del. Heather Mizeur, the Democrat who has made legal marijuana a platform issue in her campaign for governor, says Franklin "commands a certain amount of attention."

"When law enforcement stands up and says, 'This isn't working, and it needs to be reformed,' people start to rethink their position," Mizeur said.


Public polls show growing support in Maryland and across the country for legalizing marijuana, though in Maryland the proposal lacks support from key power brokers, including Gov. Martin O'Malley and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

Franklin recalls when he was on the other side.

He joined the Maryland State Police in 1976, just months after he graduated from Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore and five years after President Richard M. Nixon declared a "war on drugs." Franklin rose through the ranks, working undercover in drug busts in the 1980s as part of a regional task force and seizing property suspected in drug trafficking.

In the 1990s, he met former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke — an early and outspoken advocate of legalizing drugs — when Franklin was assigned to the board overseeing's Schmoke's pioneering needle-exchange program for addicts.

"It was the first time I ever started thinking about what he was saying and about our drug policies," Franklin said. But it wasn't long before Franklin was promoted and put in charge of nine drug task forces on the Eastern Shore. He was "back into this command to go and pound these drug dealers."

In October 2000, shortly after he retired, as a major, from the state police and took a job overseeing training for the Baltimore Police Department, a drug dealer killed one of Franklin's friends. Cpl. Edward M. Toatley, an undercover trooper and father of three, had been working with an FBI drug task force when he was shot point-blank in the face during a drug deal in Washington.

Toatley's killer later told a judge he shot him "without a second thought" to keep both the crack cocaine and the $3,500 cash in the deal.

"When I think of Ed Toatley, I don't just think of Ed Toatley," Franklin said. "I think of the people who are currently being murdered, and the families that are being left behind — whether it's the family of a law enforcement officer or the family of a drug dealer. … Life is valuable, and we have policies in place that are counterproductive to life."

Not long afterward, Franklin began volunteering to give speeches in his spare time about legalizing the drug trade. Four years ago, he took a $40,000 pay cut, he says, to become executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an international organization of former police officers, judges, prosecutors and corrections officers who now advocate legalizing drugs.

Until this year, most of Franklin's work has been out of state or on Capitol Hill. He's known among advocates of legal marijuana across the country as a moving speaker whose police experience brings instant credibility.

"There's no PR spin with him," said Erik Altieri, communications director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "He means it."

While a growing number of retired law enforcement officials have stepped forward in favor of legalizing drugs, many do not agree.

Wicomico County Sheriff Michael Lewis, a former state trooper who worked with Franklin, said although Franklin is widely respected and ran drug task forces, he was primarily in management and hasn't had the frontline experience to declare the war on drugs a failure.

"It's a slap in the face to the men and women in law enforcement who have been killed on the streets waging this war on drugs," said Lewis, who plans to testify in Annapolis against the marijuana proposals. He said marijuana detection helps police find caches of narcotics, and legalizing it would undercut efforts to stem the flow of other illegal drugs.

"Debates are really healthy, but when it comes to this, legalizing marijuana is not the answer," Lewis said.

Leigh Maddox, a former trooper who has known Franklin for 20 years, said that even though his career wasn't exactly in the trenches making drug busts every day, "He grew up here in Baltimore City, in an urban environment, and came up witnessing that life."

Last week, in the living room of the Reservoir Hill rowhouse where he grew up, Franklin was again moved to tears.

Anywhere you look, he said, you can see the fingerprints of Baltimore's drug trade. The family three doors down was firebombed in a drug-related retaliation. A park bench up the street was the scene of drug-related killing. He smoked his first joint as a teenager at a friend's house around the corner. He counts his blessings that he wasn't caught, locked up by an officers just like the one he would later become, and set on a trajectory that he says has destroyed the lives of thousands of young people.

"Not all drug use is drug abuse," Franklin said. "People need to understand that. How many people drink alcohol but aren't alcoholics?"


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