PHOTOS BY DEREK KOUYOUMJIAN
It’s hard to miss a guy in a 10-gallon cowboy hat with a grey stache sporting a jacket promoting the legalization of heroin.
When the person wearing it is a retired Texas police detective and the veteran of drug policy and criminal justice reform behind COP (Citizens Opposing Prohibition) who has spent the past 20 years haunting presidential hopefuls, even less so. So goes the life of “cannabis cop” Howard “Cowboy” Wooldridge.
The campaign trail mini-celeb causing so much consternation can’t even get through a protest without being hounded by the curious and familiar, all wanting to know what gospel may follow such a bold fashion choice.
Wooldridge and Don Murphy, a Republican who is director of federal policies for the Washington, DC lobbying group Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), are in New Hampshire doing what they do best—namely, making a scene at the intersection of education, de-stigmatization, and comparative analysis. Their effort is aimed at reframing the national discussion around drug policy, and working to change minds and laws for the good of all. As one could imagine, frustrations often plague the cause.
“Everyone knows we are a mosquito on the butt of an elephant,” Wooldridge said in a sit-down interview on Friday. “I’ve had cops see my shirt and get inches from my face about it.”
Nevertheless, New Hampshire during election season is a chance to get up close and personal with candidates and voters alike.
“It’s one at a time, one at a time, one at a time,” Wooldridge said.
“Yang said he liked my t-shirt and agreed with it,” Wooldridge added with animation. “My head almost exploded: a recognized candidate for president just said he liked my shirt about legalizing heroin. It’s like I’m not just a crazy old man in a t-shirt.”
As for their support of the various hopefuls, Murphy and Wooldridge maintain that Tulsi Gabbard is their favorite, as the congresswoman from Hawaii has filed actual bills in support of drug and criminal justice reform.
“I’m disappointed she’s not on the debate stage tonight,” Wooldridge said. “There is zero about this being discussed in earnest on the trail in New Hampshire.”
Both Wooldridge and Murphy lay offer simple questions voters should ask as they ponder where candidates stand on these issues.
“Do you want your police officer to spend 40 hours a week chasing a plant, or instead [chasing] people trying to hurt your children or grandchildren? Do you want them to protect Willie Nelson from getting lung cancer from smoking flower? Or do you want law enforcement to catch pedophiles in your town, or protect you from the drunk driver you’re afraid of on a Friday night leaving the bars? Let the police focus on public safety and keeping you safe from the other threats out there. We’re good at that.”
Needless to say, public safety is rarely considered in the throes of cannabis criminalization. Wooldridge’s experience on the force says officers who focus on the plant spend hundreds of thousands of hours hunting growers and smokers, searching for the stench of it in cars as a way to get carte blanche to search vehicles.
“It’s an issue of priority,” Murphy said. “If this isn’t a priority for a candidate going for the Democratic nomination in a key state like New Hampshire, why would a voter believe it would actually be a priority in their first term as president? Or second?”
The last White House administration is a prime example. Wooldridge said he tried to leverage his contacts to get former President Barack Obama to declare the War on Drugs, first proclaimed the enemy by Richard Nixon’s henchmen, was effectively over. A small move to reshape the national conversation, to be sure.
“Thundering silence from the Obama administration,” Wooldridge said. “We weren’t asking to pass legislation or anything requiring more than a speech. Just to make clear that the War on Drugs in the sense of governmental influence is over.”
That never happened. Wooldridge and Murphy speculate about the reason, but also note the biting apprehensions by lawmakers in general to adopt sensible, let alone lofty, reforms for the United States resembling the all-in drug decriminalization of Portugal or Switzerland, which favor rehabilitation over incarceration. A move that one would think should resonate with any candidate trying to connect with Granite State voters.
“When Trump appears to care more about the opioid crisis than the Democratic candidates in the public arena, that’s a head scratcher,” Murphy asked, “how does that even make political sense for Democrats?”
In 1994, Murphy’s wife was involved in a 7-11 hold-up that galvanized his motives for public service and reform. He ran for state office in Maryland as a Republican against an 16-year incumbent and house majority leader and won; he’s no longer in that seat, but in the time since has gotten a bill through his state’s legislature supporting cannabis as medicine, and was also selected as a GOP delegate for the 2000 Republican convention.
“It’s proof you can support cannabis and criminal justice reform as it relates to federal drug policy, and it won’t hurt you politically,” said Murphy, who has spent time visiting Republican lawmakers around the country as one of their own, attempting to overcome the association of pro-cannabis pols all being lefties.
“Most advocates in this space are hardcore progressives and liberals,” Wooldridge said. So when an elected member of the GOP would arrive on the local circuit touting progressive ideals and hard facts on drug policy, it made the conversations go farther and have more impact than a lefty standing on the doorsteps of officials with terpenes on the breath and fire in their lungs screaming for change, pointlessly sweeping the tide at the edge of the beach of serious legislative reform.
“I came to the conclusion that liberals will still hate you as a Republican, but on the side of cannabis we’re on, they’ll just hate you a little less,” Murphy said. But that begs the question: Of the current crop of candidates, who has the mettle to make a difference? The answer can be found in action, or the lack of it for that matter.”
“The only time the issue comes up is when the question is drawn from a fishbowl during a campaign stop of a media event, but not by their own volition,” Wooldridge added.
“When the question comes up, when someone like Elizabeth Warren asks a room of New Hampshire voters to raise their hand if they know someone that has had their life impacted by drug overdoses or incarceration, and every hand goes up but you’re not talking about this at every stop after as a promise to the voters, yet you know voters care about this topic intimately, to me it says you’re not serious about it as a candidate, or a potential president.”
This article was produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Manchester Divided coverage of political activity around New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Follow our coverage @BINJreports on Twitter and at binjonline.org/manchesterdivided, and if you want to see more citizens agenda-driven reporting you can contribute at givetobinj.org.