In the midst of the students and conservative stalwarts in business attire at CPAC, Howard Wooldridge stands out like a sore thumb -- but not because of his cowboy hat and big belt buckle. It's his T-shirt, which loudly proclaims "COPS SAY LEGALIZE POT ASK ME WHY." And people do, one and two at a time, in the convention hall and the hotel lobby at the Marriott Wardman Park, and he's always happy to oblige (even when in the middle of an interview).
"In short," he says to one student, "the cops can either arrest Willy, or the pedophile who's stalking your 14-year-old sister." A self-identified conservative libertarian, Wooldridge hones his pitch from there, talking about devolving marijuana policy to the states or the budget cuts that have caused layoffs in police departments or the relative dangers of alcohol by comparison or even marijuana's medicinal properties. But, even though he says only a "slight majority" of attendees at CPAC agree with him on legalization -- "it was more like 70-30 when Ron Paul was big here" -- he says "you gotta go where people disagree."
Wooldridge, a former Lansing, Michigan police officer who helped found Citizens Opposing Prohibition after stints at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and NORML, didn't start off his law enforcement career opposed to marijuana prohibition -- but it only took about three months for him to get there. "It took the first three months because I saw quickly that alcohol-related [crime] was generated by the use of alcohol," including drunk driving, bar fights and domestic violence. "The marijuana represented a violation of law, but not a public safety problem."
Marijuana prohibition, he notes, drives up the cost of using and creates incentives for users to commit crimes to feed their habits, Wooldridge said: "we create too many crime victims because [users] need the money." Ending the black market for drugs ends the incentive for users to steal to support their habits and reduces crime overall, Wooldridge asserted, "and killing the black market is my primary goal."
Wooldridge noted that it isn't only crime victims who get ripped off: taxpayers do, too. "We made about $13 billion chasing the green plant," he said, referring the federal funds distributed to law enforcement to help with drug interdiction. "Police departments are losing officers all the time" because of budget cuts, and forfeiture laws create "a perverse incentive to go after the marijuana dealer" as well.
"At the end of the day, I'd give drugs the same rules as alcohol, minus the advertising," Wooldridge said. "My job should go back to what it used to be: public safety. Personal safety should be up to individuals and their friends and family."