by Scarlet Palmer on 13/12/2017 | Legal & Politics

LEAP Scandinavia launched in Oslo

LEAP Scandinavia Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is fast becoming a worldwide organisation. The launch of LEAP Scandinavia in November 2017 brings the Nordic countries into what could be one of the most significant armies fighting the drug war – and they're on our side.

The group Law Enforcement Action Partnership was originally called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. You might think that law enforcement against prohibition sounds paradoxical, even nonsensical. Do a little research into the problems caused by laws prohibiting drug use, however, and it swiftly becomes clear why the people tasked with enforcing those laws and preventing drugs from harming society are telling that society that the laws don’t work. In fact, they’re making the harm much worse.

How did LEAP begin?

LEAP was founded in the US in 2002 by (believe it or not) the retired Police Captain Peter Christ, who had always thought that “this drug war was a stupid fucking idea”. He was inspired by the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War. When they spoke, nobody suggested that they didn’t understand the nature of combat. Christ had spent 20 years on the force of a small town in New York State. When he spoke about the nature of violence and crime related to drug business, people had to listen.

Neil Woods and Suzanne Sharkey of LEAP UK on stage at the Nordic Reform Conference in Oslo
Neil Woods and Suzanne Sharkey of LEAP UK

Neil Woods arrived at a similar point after 14 years working as an undercover Drugs Squad officer in the UK. There is no more frontline position for law enforcement dealing with drug prohibition than living this double life, posing as a crack and heroin addict whilst knowing that if you are revealed, you will almost certainly be killed. Woods experienced the escalation of the drug wars – the war on drug users, and the gang wars for control of the insanely lucrative drug trade – to terrifying levels of brutality. His book ‘Good Cop, Bad War’ covers his time in the police and is utterly compelling reading.

Police tactics have only escalated the drug war

The escalation continues today. The techniques and tactics invented and initiated by Woods at the beginning of his undercover career have been refined and improved, but the merciless violence of the countermeasures used by the kingpins he was trying to bring down have kept pace. His time undercover actually exacerbated the very disasters he was hoping to avert. Finally he faced the only sane conclusion: the way to end the war was to end prohibition. He left the police force in 2011. A year later, he founded Law Enforcement Against Prohibition UK. In February 2016, the official launch took place in the House of Commons of the UK Parliament.

On November 24th 2017, he’s standing on a stage in Oslo to announce the formation of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition Scandinavia. Next to him is Suzanne Sharkey, a member of LEAP UK and a person even more experienced than Neil in the damage that drug prohibition does. She too was a member of the police, and worked as an undercover Drugs Squad officer; she too now believes that her actions caused more harm than good, and is trying to make amends for them. But her opening statement to the audience of the first Nordic Reform Conference is not about LEAP. It’s that she’s in long term recovery, and hasn’t used alcohol or other drugs for nine years.

“Evil and bad, full of guilt and shame”

She matter-of-factly tells the audience that she attempted suicide more than once. That she was kicked out of recovery groups and substance abuse programs, for relapsing. That she was stigmatised by society, and “felt evil and bad, full of guilt and shame”. That she was arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for crimes associated with problematic substance abuse. That she became homeless. That she has children. That none of these things deterred her from continuing on a path of self-destruction and despair; nor did they help her to finally stop.

Locking up poor, vulnerable people who needed help

It was only when she began to properly recover that Suzanne Sharkey started to question whether things could have been different for her, and by extension, the thousands of people like her, including all the people she’d arrested. She realised that she’d been locking up poor, vulnerable people with little or no hope. They were being criminalised when they needed help. Additionally, she had made no difference to the amount of drugs, or the amount of users, in the society she was attempting to protect.

It’s virtually impossible to not feel compassion for Neil and Suzanne, and admiration too. Having realised what needs to happen – that all the various branches of law enforcement really do need to unite against prohibition, or we’re all going to carry on suffering – they’re now fighting for it with the same tenacity that they once used to go after drug users. And the word is spreading. More law enforcement professionals are heeding the call. LEAP Scandinavia is evidence of this, and not a moment too soon; the Scandinavian countries have a higher rate of drug related deaths than most European ones.

Bård Dyrdal has taken a difficult path to form LEAP Scandinavia

Police officer Bård Dyrdal, announcing the launch of LEAP Scandinavia on stage at the Nordic Reform Conference in Oslo
Police officer Bård Dyrdal, announcing the launch of LEAP Scandinavia at the Nordic Reform Conference in Oslo

This is undoubtedly part of the motivation for Bård Dyrdal, the Norwegian police officer who Neil hands the microphone and stage to as the Nordic Reform Conference audience applauds. He is a man who has taken a difficult path. His bravery manifests in being honest about drug policy with politicians, the public and the police, whilst still being a police officer. This principle has made him unpopular with some people from each of these groups. However, with the support of LEAP UK and enough of his Scandinavian colleagues, the launch of LEAP Scandinavia is finally a reality.

Observing Bård Dyrdal, there’s a sense that what you see is what you get. This is not a man chasing fame or political power. If he was an actor, he would be perfectly cast as the experienced, honourable policeman – a lot overworked, a little overweight, his shirt a bit rumpled and his ethics absolutely straight. It’s doubtful that he would have fooled anyone if he’d worked undercover. But it’s clear that he’s not afraid of public speaking or of action, as he stands literally in the spotlight and explains that he first met Neil Woods in August 2017 when Neil came to Oslo to give a presentation about LEAP. A month later, together with a scant four other police officers, Bård Dyrdal founded LEAP Scandinavia (it seems that if he is ambitious in anything, it’s in not restricting drug reform to Norway).They already have Danish members. Dyrdal’s admission that “Swedish, not so much,” draws a ripple of laughter, “but we’ll see”.

A humane, knowledge-based drug policy for Scandinavia

Summing up the membership of LEAP Scandinavia, “We are people who want a humane, and first and foremost, a knowledge-based drug enforcement policy”, he continues. It is worth remembering that for law enforcement, this is a radical statement. It’s not the last one he makes. Seeing drug use as a public health issue, he argues that resources allocated to law enforcement for prohibition would be better used by the health department. This is not a popular thing for a police officer to do, he explains wryly. Bård Dyrdal has colleagues who want longer sentences for drug users; money for “more powerful tools in the arsenal”. Inspired by LEAP UK, what Dyrdal and the other members of LEAP Scandinavia want is to look at what is best for society as a whole – “and in the end we will all benefit from that. Even the police”. From a police perspective, they are advocating for better and safer ways to tackle drug issues, and do not see punishment as the best way to help someone who has a drug problem. With the quintessential air of a detective surveying a crime scene and interviewing an unconvincing witness, he asks “Should the state really inflict harm on people so that people don’t inflict harm on themselves?” Bård Dyrdal shakes his head. “I don’t get that.”

Norway could lead the way for other countries

Currently, the police in Norway are arresting more people than ever before, but the rates of drug use are not dropping. The overdose rates are not significantly dropping either. Regulating drugs the way that alcohol is regulated would be a huge step forward. Bård wants to see Norway not only catching up with other countries, but leading the way in reforming drug policy. He mentions Portugal as an example of progress, but doesn’t think they have gone far enough. Decriminalisation is better than prohibition, but only regulation can really get at the root of the problem. LEAP Scandinavia is gaining members quickly, and it is to be fervently hoped that they are able to put their aims into practice with all speed.

There is another benefit to this Nordic network that Bård Dyrdal doesn’t mention but which Neil Woods is very aware of: a sense of community among law enforcement professionals who are against prohibition. Drug use, even the problematic variety (which is only about 10% of it), generally creates communities. Those communities generally agree that prohibition is doing more harm than good. To be a law enforcement professional even thinking, let alone saying, the same thing must be very isolating. Bård Dyrdal has been called a dissident by his peers. At one point he chose to withdraw from debating drug policy and being open about what he thought because of the emotional climate of the police station where he worked.

An end to isolation

LEAP Scandinavia needs people like Bård Dyrdal, just as LEAP UK needs people like Suzanne Sharkey and Neil Woods. It seems obvious now that these people need organisations like LEAP, so that they can find each other and grow stronger and work to end prohibition – just like people who enjoy drugs do. Sensi Seeds congratulates LEAP Scandinavia on their launch, wishes them all the best for the future, and will continue to report on their activities.

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