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Wyatt Emmerich: An 'old gray-headed nark' speaks his mind


Wyatt Emmerich



Marshall Fisher, the new head of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, is about as true blue a law enforcement professional as you will ever find. His resume is incredible. 


Before his latest appointment, Fisher was commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, replacing Christopher Epps who is facing criminal charges. 


Before that, Fisher was head of the Mississippi's Bureau of Narcotics for 10 years. 


Before that, he was in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration operations in Mississippi. 


Throughout his career, he has coordinated joint operations involving DEA, Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, Mississippi Highway Patrol, and numerous other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. 


Fisher started his career in law enforcement as a police officer in Texas and as a parole agent in Louisiana. He is a U.S. Navy veteran and a graduate of the University of Memphis with a degree in criminal justice. 


Fisher and his wife, Thelma, have two sons, Grady and Shane, both of whom work in federal law enforcement. 


Fisher knows as much about drugs and law enforcement as anybody in the country. I was very curious to hear his opinions. 


Typically, guys like Fisher are very stodgy and careful in their speeches. They are bureaucrats intent on not saying anything controversial. 


Fisher's presentation at Rotary started out predictably. He gave the history of the Department of Public Safety and a variety of operational statistics. He talked of the brave men and women in law enforcement and how much they appreciate the public's support. 


But toward the end, Fisher opened up and became a breath of fresh air. His concluding words struck me as truly significant and unique for a man in his position. 


He spoke openly and honestly about how he has changed over the years from a judgmental lock-em-up young law enforcement crusader to a reflective, compassionate human being seeking a better solution to the scourge of drugs and addiction. No doubt, the Holy Spirit is at work in him. 


I recorded the talk and I am reporting some of his comments. The recording was not perfectly clear, so I may have missed a word or two, but the essence of his message was clear. I print it because every one of us needs to hear what he had to say. 




"I know everybody expects an old gray-headed nark to say marijuana is bad for you but I just want to say this: Potheads are not patients and marijuana is not medicine. It is a gateway drug. I'm not a scientist, but you can talk to doctors and nurses in every emergency room in this country and the ones who will tell the truth will tell you that marijuana is a problem. I will go to my grave believing that. 


"Heroin and opioids are now a problem in our state. Initially heroin transited Mississippi. We might have a few heroin cases spill over from the Redneck Riviera or New Orleans from the entertainment industry, until about four years ago, when we started seeing heroin show up here. Personally, I believe it starts with over-prescribed opioids. Ninety-eight percent of the opioids produced in the world are consumed in the United States, which only has three percent of the population. Nobody wants any pain. I don't want any pain. I'm a wuss when it comes to pain. But Advil works. It worked when I was a kid and it still works. 


"It seems to me from being in this business a long time that this did not become a problem until people on the right side of the tracks started dying. In the old days, we'd see a pipe on the street and the attitude was 'go toward the light.' We don't need your kind in society.  


I'm here to tell you I've learned a lot over the years. I've learned a lot since I was a young man on the job. Nobody wakes up and decides they want to be a drug addict or an alcoholic. Law enforcement is starting to join forces with the treatment side and mental health professionals. 


"From my days in corrections I can tell you out of the 19,000 people in prison, 14,479 are self-admitted drug and alcohol abusers or both. We have 3,200 who were diagnosed in mental health disorders. The Department of Corrections is the de facto mental hospital in the state of Mississippi. 


"I got to know many of my counterparts in the corrections industry throughout the country, some of the most dedicated people I've ever had the pleasure of working with. They will tell you the same thing. Every man and woman in the business will tell you we don't spend enough on mental health. We don't spend enough on treatment programs.  


"I used to think alcoholics and drug abusers were just weak-minded people who didn't want to do any better. That they could stop any time they wanted to. That is a great lie. If you believe that you need to come with me to some therapy meetings. They are people just like you. Maybe somebody in the room is in recovery. 


I'm as hard core a law enforcement guy as you will ever want to meet but I think you ought to temper this with some mercy. 


I was in a Department of Corrections meeting on the Senate side in January and I gave them the numbers I just gave you. A state senator said, 'Sounds like you just got a bunch of crazy people and drug addicts locked up.' I said if that's the way you want to put it, that's about right. 


"We need mental health courts in this state and in this country. We need pre-emptive courts like we have drug courts. When I first heard about drug courts my response was, 'that's stupid.' But it's not stupid. This drug war hasn't ended and it's not going to end any time soon. And it's sure not going to end if we keep doing it the same way we've been doing it. 


"If you haven't ever been on the Mexican border and watched the cat and mouse game, you don't understand what goes on down there. People say, 'Why don't we shoot 'em when they come in?' I'd like to see a show of hands of who would like to sit up there with a 50-caliber machine gun and shoot men, women and children coming across that border. 


"Between 80 to 100 people a day die from drug overdoses. We somehow believe that if the drug has a pharmacy's name on it or a doctor's name on it, then it's safe. People will drink a little alcohol with it not knowing it's deadly. Think about it. That's like a jumbo jet a week going down. We wouldn't accept that. There would be congressional hearings. But we are ignoring it. 


"This is just my personal opinion, but I wish we could get away from the term mental health. It's just health. Mental health care is health care. Mental illness is a disease. Drug and alcohol addiction is a disease." 




Wyatt Emmerich is the editor and publisher of The Northside Sun, a weekly newspaper in Jackson. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]



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