A Police Officer’s Conversion Experience: “The Final Straw”

Brian Gaughan Guest Pieces, Harm Reduction

For 11 years, Brian Gaughan served as a police officer fighting the War on Drugs the conventional way.  What he was doing every day began to seem horribly wrong. He resigned his position and now serves as a spokesperson for drug policy reform.  We asked him to describe what led to this change. To hear more from Gaughan, view his interview with Jim Gierach on CAN-TV (pictured above).

How did I shift from being “pro-drug war” to realizing that it was totally wrong?  I watched people who were addicts being arrested, taken into custody for mere possession of an “illegal” drug, when in reality, they were being put into a cage for possessing something they may or may not be addicted to and were doing no one any harm, except perhaps their own self.

I struggled with the idea that I was part of an organization that was punishing people, often times severely, for being addicted to something. Not only would we put them in a cage, we would oftentimes financially ruin them. Their cars were towed, they needed to find bond money to post if possible.  More times than not, they would lose their jobs for not being able to show up at work, they had to spend thousands and thousands of dollars for legal representation, families were split up, homes were lost.  It slowly began to weigh on my mind.

The final “last straw,” so to speak, was when I was working a case, purchasing drugs from a low-level dealer — an addict, in his mid-20’s, living at home with his mother. He was selling drugs to support his own addiction habit. As I was building a case against him, I attempted to contact him, but he wasn’t at home.

His mother spoke to me and said she wanted to thank me for being her son’s friend.  She went on to tell me that since his father had passed away, he had begun hanging with the “wrong crowd.”  She was worried about him, but she could tell that I was “a good person” and would be a positive influence on her son. I literally wanted to throw up, I was so disgusted with myself.

“ZERO people were being helped by me arresting this young man, yet many would suffer because of it.”Brian Gaughan

This poor mother is telling me this, having no idea that I’m as far from her son’s friend as one could be, my motive was to have him locked in a cage…and for what? Being an addict and trying to support his habit?

That was it for me.   I knew I was in the wrong profession. I became a police officer to help people out of bad situations they may find themselves in. I didn’t become an officer to hurt people, and I realized that was precisely was what I was doing.

I still wanted to have an occupation where I could fulfill my desire to help people, and to me, the obvious choice was to start applying for firefighter/paramedic positions. I was very fortunate to obtain such a position in a relatively short period of time and was very relieved.

I joined Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) to make certain that as a society, we don’t continue down the same wrongheaded path of prohibition, and to enlighten as many folks as I can about the fact that the “War on Drugs” or as I like to call it, the “War on People” is far more dangerous than drugs themselves.

The following comments are excerpted from “Chicago’s War on Drugs”, CAN-TV, May 2.


Rather than a blanket prohibition, we should have learned to regulate, so that we weren’t just giving the money over to drug cartels. Once alcohol prohibition was overturned, the number of officers killed in this country went on a steady downhill slide. In early 70’s, with Richard Nixon declaring the War on Drugs, we saw a ramp up of officer deaths. Prohibition has been wrong for both sides.

Today, people are driving around with guns in their cars. Why? They’re trying to protect their turf in order to sell drugs. If drugs were legal, there wouldn’t be so much drug violence. (Former Police Commissioner) McCarthy was right: over 80% of gun violence is related to drugs and turf.

I don’t know of too many instances where people are standing on the street corner selling cans of Budweiser or bottles of whiskey. We don’t see guys from the Coors distributorship doing drive-by shootings on guys from the Budweiser distributorship. Those sales are controlled and regulated. But we did see drive by shootings by organized crime in the 20’s. Once we regulated them the violence went down. We should learn from the past.


I can’t think of a worse time for the relationship between police and do it here the citizens of this community.  I just heard that the Chicago Crime Commission is implementing a phone bank that people can call to report crimes.  They feel uncomfortable calling police departments to report crimes.

People who are not involved get hassled for drugs on a regular basis. They are pulled over. Cars are ransacked by officers. Their backpacks are dumped out.  What are police searching for?  Two things:  drugs and guns.  And a lot of times those people aren’t involved with drugs or guns.

Once that happens so many times, again and again, people develop a distrust of police officers.  They don’t want to go to them when there are actual crimes in their communities.   We are generations away from closing this gap.