Rick Romley: He inhaled.

Falling Czar

The news that Rick Romley is a candidate to become the nation's next drug czar is vivid evidence that irony is alive and well.

Romley -- the Maricopa County attorney since 1989 -- would set all kinds of new precedents for drug czardom.

He would be our first drug czar who has admitted to smoking pot -- and actually inhaling.

He would be the first whose home state embraced sweeping liberalization of drug policy. The electorate adopted a forgiving treatment-first, incarcerate-later policy that served as a stunning rebuke of Romley's lock-'em-up philosophy.

He would be the first who served as landlord of a crack bar.

Rick Romley is the Robert Downey Jr. of drug prosecutors.

Romley was elected county attorney in 1988, on the coattails of our first President Bush, George Herbert Walker.

On September 5, 1989, Bush went on national television to declare his amplification of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign. He launched his own jihad on drugs. The president clutched a bag of crack cocaine that he said had been purchased by undercover officers right across the street from the White House. (Agents had lured the dealer to that site.)

In the wake of his melodramatic show-and-tell, the president cited Maricopa County as the cutting edge in zero-tolerance drug enforcement. TV network marionettes descended on the Valley to see for themselves. They talked to Romley and his partner in crime-fighting, Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega, who had formed something called the Demand Reduction Task Force. Their slogan, "Do Drugs/Do Time," was ubiquitous. The program was designed to deter casual drug users. Its most high-profile enforcement effort saw 30 people busted for possessing marijuana at a Paul McCartney concert.

The network news crews never made it to Club 902, a saloon on West Van Buren Street. A significant segment of the club's clientele was drawn by a flourishing illicit drug trade. The crack cocaine marketplace in the club's parking lot was maddeningly transparent. Undercover officers made busts there with regularity. Residents and neighborhood activists pleaded for intervention. The Guardian Angels, a vigilante group, patrolled the premises, attempting to discourage the hoodlums.

All the while, Rick Romley and his sister held two liens on Club 902. The note generated nearly $1,000 a month.

The Guardian Angels confronted Romley during a neighborhood meeting. The prosecutor feigned ignorance. New Times' Michael Lacey wrote a series of devastating columns about Romley's crack den.

How did Romley respond? Not by divesting himself of the blighted site, but by declaring a conflict of interest. He shifted prosecution of dealers arrested there to the Arizona Attorney General's Office.

Romley wasn't involved in the drug transactions himself, so his conscience was clean.

"Why hasn't the bar license been lifted?" a Romley spokesman asked at the time. "If it's so dirty, why doesn't the liquor department close it down?"

The answer to that question did nothing to absolve Romley. It turned out that the Phoenix Police Department was not fulfilling its duty to inform liquor authorities of the open-air pharmacy.

Whenever police are called to an establishment that sells liquor, they are required by law to report it to the state Department of Liquor Licensing and Control. But with his buddy, Chief Ortega, presiding over the cop shop, there was little danger of that happening.

Throughout 1989, the cops filed a total of 127 arrest or incident reports related to Club 902. More than half of the incidents were drug arrests. But not one of those occurrences showed up in the nightclub's file at the liquor department.

New Times blew the whistle on Club 902. The state liquor department -- infamous for its inertia -- moved expeditiously to revoke the club's liquor permit. That spelled the end of the drug bash at Romley's property.

No wonder some people say Rick Romley would make a crack drug czar.

It's no surprise that a prosecutor once portrayed as an anti-drug role model would surface as a candidate to become the nation's drug czar, the official overseeing the nation's $20 billion annual drug-control program. The White House Office of National Drug Policy, which the czar oversees, is charged with attacking "illicit drug use, manufacturing, and trafficking, drug-related crime and violence and drug-related health consequences."

But much of the drug czar's focus has shifted to Central and South America, where costly military tactics have come to the fore (with little apparent impact). Romley does have military experience -- he lost both his legs at the knee in Vietnam -- but he's no General McCaffrey.

I'd like to ask Romley how he'd defeat the sophisticated drug cartels. I'd like to ask him lots of things, but, as usual, he was not available to speak to me. His spokesmen were not commenting on his prospects for the Cabinet-level post.

Romley's detractors say his blind intransigence is no friend of justice.

And his record as a drug scourge is nothing to write home about.

In fact, he seems to have discarded the mantle of anti-drug crusader. His biography on the county Web site contains scant mention of his drug-enforcement credentials. The county attorney's Web page touting drug programs discloses: "Recently, the program shifted focus from the casual adult drug user to deterring teenage experimentation with illegal drugs."

That's because in 1996, voters saw through the folly of locking up casual drug users for long stretches. While Romley helmed the largest prosecutor's office in the state (the sixth largest in the country), Arizona voters soundly rejected his draconian "Do Drugs/Do Time" campaign. Over Romley's objections, voters enacted by a 2-1 margin the most progressive medical marijuana statute the nation had seen. Proposition 200 also removed jail as an option for first-time drug possessors.

Today, first-time drug offenders head to court knowing they're not going to jail. Instead, they get counseling and drug tests. Offenders who complete the program wind up with misdemeanors instead of felonies on their records.

Romley spokesman Bill FitzGerald is nostalgic for the days when anyone caught with a reefer faced the prospect of a prison cell.

"The kinds of operations they [county prosecutors] did at the beginning, they are not doing now," he laments. "Before you get involved in the criminal justice program, you can go through that treatment plan [in drug court]. But 25 percent of the people that go through it are not interested in treatment. They go through the program and then go out and hope they don't get caught again."

Romley's decade-old brain child, the Treatment Assessment Screening Center (TASC), once hailed as revolutionary, still exists. People who pay to complete the costly TASC diversion program can walk away with no criminal record at all. Defense attorneys say it works well for motivated offenders who have the time and money to complete the program. They say it's less effective for poorer perpetrators. TASC is no depot for dabblers in dangerous drugs. Two-thirds of the offenses are for marijuana possession. Less than 15 percent were for cocaine or methamphetamine.

Former Arizona legislator Chuck Blanchard served for two years as counsel to the drug czar. Blanchard says the rumor mill casts Romley as a true contender.

"I think he clearly is knowledgeable of the issue, the law enforcement side," Blanchard says of Romley. "What he'd need to get a bead on very quickly is the political infighting aspect of the job."

And, of course, he should resist the urge to bankroll any D.C. crack dens.


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