By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
He looks like a good cop. He's got the 'stache, the short-cropped hair, the pushed-out chest and the shiny badge. He sounds like a good cop too; drawled and official. He's got a TV reporter's microphone in his face and a brick of marijuana in his hand, and he's answering questions -- not in the "I just accidentally Tasered an old lady" kind of way, but with a grin of accomplishment. The total bust was in the neighborhood of 275 pounds.
This is the old Barry Cooper. Top cop. Total prick. He claims more than 300 felony drug arrests during his eight years as an officer in Gladewater, Big Sandy and Odessa, and a former supervisor says he was damn good at his job, even if he doesn't agree with Cooper's latest get-rich idea.
The video cuts to a decade later, a few months ago. "That was me, Barry Cooper," he says, "top narcotics officer." His hair is longer. That 'stache is now a full-on goatee. The top cop has become a dude. "I'm going to show you places that I never found marijuana hidden." He talks with his hands, like a mellowed-out P.T. Barnum. "I'm going to teach you exactly how narcotic-detector dogs are trained, and I'm going to answer that age-old question: Do coffee grounds really work?"
It's quite the pitch: Former drug warrior sees the light, goes to the dark side and makes a video, Never Get Busted Again, with shady tips on how to fool the fuzz. Stoners rejoice. The new beginning of the end of prohibition is near.
"The drug war is a failed policy and the legal side effects on the families are worse than the drugs," says Cooper. "I was so wrong in the things I did back then. I ruined lives."
Cooper now sees himself as the new face of marijuana reform, and he just might be right. He's got the credentials. He's got the charisma. He's got the shiny new DVD. Sure, his former colleagues don't approve, but that's to be expected. What's surprising is that Cooper has also managed to piss off some of the old guard, the hippies-turned-reformers who've been knocking on the back door for years, chipping away at the legal system with talk of medical marijuana and overcrowded prisons. He's a Johnny-come-lately, they say, an ex-narc looking to make a fast buck. He claims he doesn't understand why they're against him, but he's confident he'll eventually lead the flock:
"The people who take the time to know me will get on my side."
Ask any parent what his greatest accomplishment is, and he'll probably tell you his kids. It's a noble sentiment, for sure, but between that pause and the talk of being the richest man alive, there's a hint of disappointment, a resignation that comes with seeing your own dreams swirl down the commode. Your greatest accomplishment should be your kids, but shouldn't your second greatest accomplishment also be something great?
"When I was five years old, I specifically remember being in the backyard and it really felt like I had tens of thousands of people behind me, and I was leading them, and they were following me because they liked me, not because they had to," says Cooper, sitting on a couch in the living room of his three-bedroom house in Big Sandy, one of those small, pine-covered towns between Tyler and Longview. His common-law wife and their four kids -- two his and two hers -- are huddled together in a warm pile on the other couch. Earlier today, he told one daughter he liked her hair, although he wished she would've used more blue; the pink was a tad overwhelming. "I want to be a freedom fighter," he says. "I want to help people get out of jail."
Cooper says he's always felt like he was meant to lead an army, but before he dreamt up Never Get Busted Again, he'd begun to think his chance had passed. He'd been a good cop. "He was hard-working, and he was talented," says Tom Finley, a private investigator in Midland who used to be a supervisor with the Permian Basin Drug Task Force, where Cooper worked between stints in East Texas. "He had trained his own dog. He was good. He made a lot of arrests and found a lot of drugs on the highway." But Cooper wound up on the wrong side of small-town politics -- busting a mayor's son for meth and a councilman for pot didn't help -- so he left law enforcement in 1996 to pursue two other ventures: selling used cars and preaching the gospel.
His larger-than-life persona and big, toothy grin served him well. "I was making more money in cars in a week than I'd make in a month for the police department," he says. "Everything I do, I make money on. That's my gift." As for the preaching, he had a congregation for six years, although he's reluctant to provide many details, save for abstract talk about how it ended: "The best I can tell, the Bible, it's about love and being friendly and being kind, and the meanest people you'll ever meet in your life are at church."
Cooper's not the kind of guy to sit still for long. He bounced around, owning car lots, tire shops and limo services in the one-stoplight, speed-trap towns of East Texas, eventually opening up a cage-fighting league called Xtreme Fight Championship. It was a good fit for him. Over the years, he's wound up in jail a few times, for unlawfully carrying a pistol, for assault, for making threats, for failing to return Jeepers Creepers and Jeepers Creepers II. All of the charges were dropped down or dismissed, although he is guilty of having bad taste in movies.
His feelings towards his former colleagues were already pretty low by the time his ex-brother-in-law, a constable, showed up at the house with an order to remove his daughters, he says, and take them to their mother. Cooper says he wasn't there at the time, and the girls put up such a fuss that they were allowed to stay, but he thought of them, their tears and screams, and it all began to sink in.
"I started remembering back to all the lives I destroyed, and my conscience was speaking to me," he says. He remembered kicking in the doors of mothers and fathers, taking them away for pot possession. "And then I realized our government lied to me, training me marijuana was evil like all the other substances. I was lied to. So it angered me. I got upset."
He had a mission, but he still didn't have a plan. "I had started another little church where we had R-rated church services," he says. "Kids had to go next door, 'cause I got real. Underground people came from everywhere, but they didn't have enough money to keep it open. So I was, like, ÔHow can I use my gifts to help people?'"
And just like that, just over three months ago, he came up with Never Get Busted Again. At the age of 37, Barry Cooper had found his cause.
Cut to Cooper, driving down a drizzly interstate in a black Suburban. He's demonstrating profiling techniques, and from the way he's analyzing all the cars around him, it's easy to forget he's not still a cop. That is, until he says, "If I injected you with adrenaline, certain doses every day and all day long, like a cop gets, you would become addicted to that adrenaline and need more and more and more and more of it."
Cooper says he used to tell drug offenders they were under arrest and not cuff 'em right away, hoping for a fight or flight. When pulling people over, sometimes he'd light them up from far behind, just so they could consider flooring it. The adrenaline was addictive. And that high is what fuels the war on drugs, he says.
"Interdiction officers, narcotics officers, are not out here to help the American people, and they're not out here to keep drugs out of the hands of school kids. Drug dealers are not dealing drugs to your ten-year-old on the playground. For one, ten-year-olds don't have any money. For two, ten-year-olds are not doing the drugs. That's all a government ploy."
These aren't the kinds of things cops want to hear, and Cooper's former supervisor can't help but wonder what he's getting at. "Evidently he's starting this deal to make money, but there's lots of ways to make money besides going in with the enemy," says Tom Finley. "Truth is, he was a good narcotics officer. And I guess if he wanted to switch sides and haul drugs, he'd probably be a good drug hauler, and he'll probably make a good tape, but that don't make it right." Tim Scott, current chief of police in Big Sandy, says he doesn't know Cooper personally, but he echoes Finley's concerns. "Unless he's running dope himself, and he's wanting to help his guys out so they'll pay him, I really don't know what his deal is," he says. "I don't know if he just got a bad taste or if he just decided he would make more money helping the bad guys or what. I just don't understand it. I can't see why he'd want to help the other side."
But there aren't two sides, says Cooper. The drug war is bad for cops too. It encourages gang activity. It funds terrorists. It takes time away from catching murderers and rapists. "My response to them is: Just put your emotions aside. Look at the facts, not opinions and beliefs, look at the facts of the argument and then you'll understand and agree," he says. "They're just misinformed. They've had propaganda pushed into their heads by our government, and they really believe what they are doing is right."
He's received a lot of negative attention since the Tyler Morning Telegraph first broke the story over Christmas. Fox News called him a good cop gone bad. Anonymous comments on blogs said he was endangering his former coworkers. Pro-legalization Web sites questioned whether he was a narc in disguise. All of this has been good for DVD sales, but it all came a little too fast. As of last week, Cooper was still finishing the video. He says it'll be done just in time for the tail end of his site's two-to-six-weeks delivery promise.
"If you have a DARE sticker or a Say No to Drugs sticker, that alerted me to you," he says, tailing a car on the interstate. "You would not believe the people I arrested with those types of stickers on their cars. Cops do not trust people, period. Because they get lied to every single day."
Number One: Don't put any stickers on your car. Nothing. Supporting law enforcement, belonging to a frat, being a Vietnam vet -- all of these make the fuzz notice you, and your primary mission is to blend in. That means no reckless driving, no overly safe driving. Blend.
Number Two: Add a woman to the mix. Nothing says "stoners" like a carload of sausage.
Number Three: Hide your pot in food. It won't fool the drug dogs (they're too smart for that) but it might confuse the handlers (no comment).
Number Four: Roll in the rain. No one likes to get wet, not even cops.
Number Five: If you're only holding a small amount of weed and a cop wants to search your car, give him consent. That's right: Give him consent. "When an American exercises his constitutional right to refuse consent to search of a vehicle, that is a huge reasonable suspicion to a cop," says Cooper. "A hundred percent of the time when somebody refused consent, I always found something they didn't want me to see." If the police want inside your car, they will get inside your car, even if that means hanging out on the side of the road until a warrant or a dog arrives. Give consent, and they probably won't look very hard. After all, you've got nothing to hide.
Cooper realizes some of his tips would also work for other contraband, but he says it's "no different than when you order a DVD on how to shoot a handgun accurately. That trick you learned, somebody can take it and use it to murder somebody. That doesn't make the DVD bad." He wishes coke, smack and meth could be wiped off the planet, but even if folks do use his video to traffic the hard stuff, he says they don't deserve to go to jail for the drugs. "The police say, 'Well, these drug offenders are violent.' I say, 'Put 'em in jail for the violence.'"
He's now tailing a gray sedan, his windshield speckled with drizzle. "Louisiana tags, rolling west. Two young white males. This would be a money load. I'm thinking they're carrying money to Dallas to buy drugs to carry back to Louisiana. Now get a good shot of these two," he says, revving his Suburban. He's about to elaborate on why these dudes are high-profile targets, but he gets distracted. "He is rolling a joint in his lap right there!" he yells, and the dudes look at him, at the camera, and speed off down the road. "Now, see, that's a good example of what not to do. Do not roll down the highway rolling a joint."
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Marihuana Tax Act, which effectively outlawed pot across the nation. It happened four years after that noble experiment, the prohibition of alcohol, had been declared a failure. Texas was actually ahead of the cannabis curve, criminalizing the stuff in 1919. One of the main reasons cited was that marijuana made Mexicans crazy. That rationale has been tweaked over the years, but the war goes on. In 2005, almost 700,000 arrests were made in the United States for marijuana possession, another 90,000 for dealing, according to FBI statistics.
"I realized long ago that when uniformed officers arrested a robber or a rapist, the rate for that particular crime went down," former cop Jack Cole says in a speech he shared with the Houston Press. "But when I arrested a drug dealer, the crime rate didn't go down. I was simply creating a job opening for a long line of people more than willing to risk arrest for those obscene profits." Cole was a New Jersey cop for 26 years. He's now the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization of former officers who want an end to the drug war. Barry Cooper joined LEAP shortly before news of his DVD got out, but the org quickly backed away.
"While LEAP is in sympathy with millions of people who have their lives damaged or destroyed by the failed policy of prohibition, LEAP in no way endorses the violation of the law, or any efforts to frustrate the hard work of those sworn to uphold the law," says the organization in a release. "The only reason people listen to us is because they believe we are unbiased and present the truth about the war on drugs. Much of that belief is based on the fact that we are not a moneymaking organization."
Cooper is definitely profiting from his video -- no doubt about it, although he won't discuss exact figures. But the cash is what gives his mission that extra kick. Plenty of former drug warriors have come out against prohibition, but nothing says "look over here" like a former cop actually making money off helping stoners hide their sacks. And Cooper is custom-made for the attention. He's not a fried-out hippie. He's not the stiff military type. He's a dude, tall and proud and loud.
"It's called kicking some ass and saying what needs to be said and not eking around," he says. "Hey, let's make marijuana legal, medicinal marijuana, and try to eke something through. Let's be nice to law enforcement because we're trying to join them. No, that's nuts. Law enforcement is not nice to us -- no violence against law enforcement, you know that's not what I'm talking about. But law enforcement is not nice to us, locking 750,000 of us up a year for smoking pot. Why in the world would we extend the hand of niceness to them?"
Medical marijuana, he says, is just a way of pussyfooting around the issue. It's a back door, and people on both sides know it. Just ask any local stoner who's been offered nuggs of that good medicinal shit from California.
Dean Becker, the deep-voiced, Houston-based host of the Drug Truth Network, says there might be a "minor truth" to what Cooper says about medicinal pot, but Cooper has "probably never sat down with an MS patient and smoked marijuana with him." The effects of the pot are almost instantaneous, he says. "You can see the blood flow return, you can see the hands calm down, you can begin to better understand the words they say." But ultimately Becker thinks Cooper has done a good thing, even if the former cop wasn't as diplomatic with other organizations as he could've been. "I think what he has done thus far has been wonderful," says Becker. "I think it opened the dialogue, because that's really what progress is all about."
But opening up dialogue has only gotten the movement so far. The war on drugs isn't working, says Cooper, and neither is the war on the war. "The drug reformationists, right now I think they carried the ball to the 40-yard line or 30-yard line, and everybody's trying to figure out how to get it into the end zone," he says. And that's where his above-the-radar, guerrilla-style tactics could come into play.
The thing about revolutionaries who've been at it for a while, though, is that they're often resistant to change. As word of Cooper's plans bounced around the Internet, Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, penned an e-mail to colleagues in which he said: "Let's not kid ourselves that this ex-narc is suddenly a champion for civil rights; he is just trying to make a fast buck. I would be cautious before inviting him to join LEAP or any other reform organization. We should learn what we can about beating the drug dogs, but we should not trust this scumbag who worked for years locking people like us up."
When Stroup spoke with the Press, he said that e-mail hadn't been intended for publication, but then he continued. "My point is still valid," he says. "I went up and looked at his promo video -- I suspect lots of people have. It's one of the most disgusting pieces of marketing I've ever run into in this area. I mean, it makes late-night gadget salesmen look sophisticated. He's shouting. He's screaming. He's jumping up and down." Stroup says he has absolutely no problem with former drug warriors rethinking their positions; he just thinks Cooper is all about the cash. As for the video, he says, "I don't suspect there'll be a single person more or less arrested as a result of it."
Jerry Epstein, cofounder of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, isn't so sure. "I have worked with some of the best experts in the country for years now, and they can't get on TV shows," he says, noting Cooper's knack for publicity. "We're gonna take the opportunity to support communication to the public about the problem, even if we don't particularly like the package it got wrapped in."
Cooper has big plans. A second volume of Never Get Busted Again. A video on search warrants called Never Get Raided, with tips on how to spot informants and undercover officers. He claims to love the study of human behavior, and his best idea might be a little project called 50-50, where he'll get 50 people in a room, have them drink booze till 4 a.m. -- ambulance on site -- and record the results. Then he'll replace the hooch with weed and do it all over again. Needless to say, the first night, full of fighting and flirting and puking, will probably make for better reality TV.
As for the old-guard reformers, he's confident he'll eventually win them over. And even if not, "I'm young," he says. "I'm going to be here a lot longer than they are." He might've just started out as a cop with doubts -- "Fifteen men in SWAT gear, kicking in a door on a mom and dad and little kids, and I'm thinking, ÔDude! This is not right!'" -- but now he's got one up on many reformers. He's on the line, a civil disobedient, basically begging the police to harass him.
"I watch everything, because I constantly think I'm going to be arrested," he says. "I might be a little out there, but I produce, I put money into the economy, I raise a good family, I'm not a dangerous person, no history of violence, and I'm scared to go to prison. You see why I'm making the noise I'm making? I have a chance at a national level to say what all these other commoners want to say, but they don't have the platform to say it. I truly believe I'm the mouthpiece for millions of people across the U.S., and I'm not going to shut up. I'm going to get louder. I'll use reason and logic, but I'm going to use everything in me, to stay in the spotlight, to end this shit, whatever it takes."