Most police officers support the war on drugs. Why? Because their jobs depend on it. Nate Bradley is the exception.

Most cops support the war on drugs. Why? Because their jobs depend on it. Nate Bradley is the exception.

Nate Bradley

Two years ago, Nate Bradley was a cop in Wheatland, California, population 4,000, a rural town one hour north of Sacramento. Today, he heads the California Cannabis Industry Association. Amid the stampede of California, Colorado and Washington residents rushing into the cannabusiness, no one expected an ex-cop to be leading the charge—least of all Bradley himself.

When Nate joined the force in 2003, he wasn’t ambivalent about cannabis; he was dead-set against it. Smoking pot for pleasure was evil. Immoral. Medical marijuana? A scam. Just a bunch of stoners gaming the system.

That’s admittedly a minority position for a man in his 20s, but it’s less odd knowing that Bradley and his five siblings were home-schooled by his father, a pastor who preaches “Grace-based, biblical help for the Christian family,” the main tenets of which are obedience, chastity and chastisement (a.k.a. physical punishment). If the Bradley kids broke the rules, they had the rebelliousness beaten out of them. When Nate was 17, his mother discovered him listening to Green Day and Sublime CDs. She threw him out of the family home for six months.

The DEA itself only has 4,000 officers nationwide. To enforce its laws, it funnels $10 billion a year to local cops and task forces.

Today, Nate is a giant of a man. He’s six-foot-five and weighs about 330 pounds. He doesn’t just walk across the street; his entire body rumbles. But he’s a gentle giant. He has a slight facial tic and a stutter, which is always apparent but never stops him from speaking his mind. They’re both permanent side effects from taking Ritalin (synthetic cocaine) for ADHD when he was a boy.

Despite Nate’s frequent clashes with his parents as a boy, he took on their belief system as an adult—a trait not uncommon in abusive relationships. When he became a rookie LEO (law enforcement officer) he believed that he was aiding the people he arrested. “I told myself, ‘What they’re doing is hurting themselves, so if I arrest them, I’ll be helping them,’” he says. “Early on, I remember stopping this lady. She had this gallon Ziploc bag full of weed in her car, and she’s like, “I’ve got breast cancer, and this is medical.” She didn’t have any paperwork on her, and I figured she was lying. When my sergeant rolled up on the scene, he looked at her and said to me, ‘What the fuck are you doing? If this woman says she’s got breast cancer, she fucking has breast cancer.’ He handed the bag of weed to her and asked her to leave. He later explained to me that my job was to keep the peace, nothing more, nothing less.”

Over time fissures began to crack the foundations of his beliefs. In one instance he was arresting a 24-year old man for pot possession and the man turned to him. “Officer, could you at least wait until my boy goes inside the house before you slap on those cuffs?”

“That rocked me to my core,” recalls Bradley, “because this dude suddenly went from a drug user to a human. I started to question the whole drug war.” His own beliefs may have been evolving, but the system he worked under isn’t set up for change. The DEA itself only has 4,000 officers nationwide. To enforce its laws it funnels some $10 billion each year to local cops and task forces, according to Dr. Jon Gettman, researcher and author of the report, “Lost Taxes and Other Costs of Marijuana Laws” in the form of grants and task forces. (According to FBI statistics this resulted in about 750,000 marijuana arrests in 2012. That’s one arrest every 42 seconds and 120,000 more arrests for pot than for violent crimes in the same year).

Bradley once saw a cop take $1,000 from someone with pot, get a money order from the bank and mail it to the feds for reimbursement. He received an $800 check in the mail. “They look at it like shopping,” he says.

But the vast majority of drug enforcement money comes from ‘asset forfeiture,’ a system that allows cops to seize any property—a house, a car, cash—associated with drugs and allows them to keep, sell, or auction it. The DEA keeps 20 percent of the proceeds and returns 80 percent to the local authorities in cash. According to Justice Department, assets forfeited in MJ cases from 2002-2012 accounted for $1 billion of the $6.5 billion from all drug busts. “Local cops are addicted to asset forfeiture,” says Bradley, who once saw a cop take $1,000 from someone with pot, get a money order from the bank, mail it to the feds for reimbursement and receive a check for $800 in the mail. “They get all excited when they calculate the value of the property they seize. They look at it like shopping.” Both Colorado and Washington where pot is legal, are down $18 million in revenue, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, because they are no longer seizing grows and the assets associated with them.

That cash incentive also had the unintended effect of perverting crime prevention. Nate witnessed this firsthand in 2007 while investigating a scam in which a prostitute and a high school principal were teaming up to rob and extort johns. When he requested additional men to help with a sting operation that could lead to an arrest his superior told him that the department didn’t have the budget for overtime. Fast forward one month when Nate was called to investigate a massive 800-plant pot garden in someone’s back yard. Thirty deputies were paid overtime to chop down and destroy the plants. “I saw this and thought, ‘Two of those guys could have helped me close my case,’ but we had no funds for that. A garden takes priority because the DEA grants are there.”

Little by little, the drug war was eroding the conviction with which Nate performed his job. At the same time, he started learning about the healing aspects of the plant. One day, later in 2007, he and two narcotics agents were called to investigate a backyard grow. A young man with a ponytail, goatee, and only one leg, answered the door.

“Nate,” his friend said, “If I sold this to you it’d be a felony, but if I hand it to you it’s a ticket. I like you enough to risk a ticket.”

“You guys here for the plants?” he asked from his wheelchair. He showed them his patient recommendation and then told them that pot had helped him extricate himself from opiates. “After I lost my leg, they gave me all of these pills that turned me into a zombie. I hated them. But those plants helped me stop taking them. Look, I just medicated before you got here and I can have a conversation with you.” He explained that that cannabis had never killed anyone and that overdosing was impossible.

In the ensuing years, Nate’s problems began to pile up. He was diagnosed with something called Complex PTSD, which was manifesting itself in severe anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia. His doctors were rotating him on anti-anxiety meds—Atavan, Xanax—and antidepressants—Zoloft, Paxil, Prozac— but nothing brought him calm. He began to drink heavily: A 12-ounce vodka and Sprite in equal proportions was his cocktail of choice.

On October 5, 2009—a date he’ll always remember—he awakened at 1AM, temples throbbing, eyes were blinking red, sirens screaming in his ears. His weight had ballooned to 455 pounds and sciatica was sending searing sensations from his lower back down to his toes. He was functioning poorly at work, he was unable to care for his young son, and he and his wife were sleeping in separate beds. He emerged from his bedroom and saw a bottle of Absolut on the kitchen counter. “I knew that if I took another drink I was going to die,” he recalls.

In his panic, Nate threw on some clothes and drove across town to the home of an old high school friend who he knew smoked pot. They had discussed it on and off through the years.

“T-Bone,” he said banging on his pal’s door, “I need help.”

T-Bone went into the house and returned with a brown bag containing a bud. “Nate,” he said, “If I sold this to you it’d be a felony, but if I hand it to you it’s a ticket. I like you enough to risk a ticket.”

Nate bolted for home and once there told his wife what he planned to do. After years of his erratic behavior she said in exasperation, “Nate, I don’t care. Please try it.” So he went into the backyard, filled the pipe and clicked his Bic. That click was the sound of goodbye—goodbye to family, career and everything he believed.

As he recounts this, his eyes begin to well up. “I took two puffs and the voices in my head, the red blinking lights, were gone.”

He sat in the back yard staring up at the stars until finally he went quietly into the house lay next to his wife. For the first time in four months he slept next to her. He didn’t wake for 12 hours.

Five days after smoking cannabis, Nate was fired. Budget cuts, plus his drinking, weight and mental fragility made him a prime candidate to be axed.

Once relieved of duty, he told his psychiatrist about cannabis. The doctor supported the move. After six months of smoking, signs of life appeared. He began to parent his son again. He exercised and shed 100 pounds. He checked himself into detox to get off pills. “It was like getting heroin out of my system,” he says. “It took me six months of being a patient, six months of feeling that I was violating my conscience ever time I’d smoke, like I was doing an immoral act against God and everything I had known. ” Then he told his parents.

His mother’s response? “It obviously works,” she says. “You’re alive. That’s all I care about.” His dad responded less generously: “It’s like my own son tells me he supports the murder of unborn children,” he said. He couldn’t accept it. But after several uncomfortable months of watching his son’s transformation, he came around. “You’re not getting stupid,” he told Nate. “In fact, your mind is sharper.”

And his LEO colleagues? Since they had seen him hit bottom, most of eight men on his force were pleased that he had found a way out of his hole. “One of my buddies who’s a narc called me: ‘Dude, I think it’s cool what you’re doing. I just can’t talk about it,’” says Nate. But to many other cops, he was a traitor. Deputies from other offices avoided eye contact. Some would just nod, lower their heads and walk away. One of his best friends, someone who had invited him to his wedding, said, “I get that it’s helping you, that’s nice. But I hate it, and it doesn’t matter what you say. I’m always going to hate it, and I’ll never vote for it.”

Nate with his son


About a year after leaving the force, Nate saw the despair that comes not from drug use, but from the policies engineered to avert it. Arrest someone for drugs, and he’s on probation, which means he loses his driver’s license and if he lives outside of a city, can’t get to work. What do you do? You drive illegally. If you get arrested for that, you’re in jail—and on and on.

Cops in Nate’s county were no longer asking if cannabis should be legal, but were now wondering if they would able to use it once it was.

So Nate contacted Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization of about 5,000 ex-cops who believe that ending the War on Drugs will reduce crime in the US and get hundreds of thousands of people out of prisons. He was immediately recruited as a speaker on Proposition 19, California’s 2010 ballot initiative to legalize cannabis. His story, stutter and all, moved people.

These days some cop friends are telling him that opinion on the force is beginning to evolve. Cops in his county were no longer asking if cannabis should be legal, but were now wondering if they would able to use it once it was. If that sounds unlikely, another ex DEA agent, Patrick Moen (who now works for Privateer Holdings, a Seattle-based cannabis venture-capital fund), seconded it. “The overwhelming majority of my DEA colleagues agree that it was a waste of resources,” he said. Bradley has also met a political consultant who told five Republicans in a packed race in Palm Springs, California, that “being a cop who was for marijuana law reform would give them the edge.” That augurs a political sea change in California at least.

In 2012, he spent the year organizing the Yuba County Growers Association who had never had a voice in the state capital. The attorney he was working with, Lance Rogers, told him that he had other clients who needed representation in Sacramento, and that a trade association would be useful. Nate floated the name, CCIA (California Cannabis Industry Association), and Rogers approved.

Others had tried this before and failed. Growers and others in the fledgling cannabis industry were used to being outlaws, living one day at a time, never sure if their doors were going to busted down. “Every grower is his own little Scarface,” observes Nate. “They’re all kings in their own world, and they never trusted anyone else.” But he barreled on. Today, CCIA has 36 members, an office and a lobbyist. It’s a crawl, not a sprint, to find business-oriented people who are in it for the long haul, not just a quick buck. But Nate’s a believer now, and he’s determined to help legitimize the infant industry.

And strangely, so is his dad. Although they haven’t healed their own relationship, his dad carries a bottle of Xternal, a topical cannabis spray that relieves muscle pain (it was originally developed for horses). He travels the country educating his flock on the benefits of Christian home-schooling, and if he spots someone suffering, he pulls it out and asks, “Have you ever tried cannabis spray? It works wonderfully.”

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