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August 21, 2006 - Calgary Sun (CN AB)

Column: Losing Battle

Former Police Chief Reveals Startling View on Drug War

By Bill Kaufmann

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Norman Stamper expected the worst when he appeared on right-wing TV bully pulpiteer Bill O'Reilly's laughably-named No-Spin Zone.

"I had to take a long, hot shower after spending time with him," says Stamper, 63, who looks more like a university professor than a former chief of Seattle's police force.

Stamper's sin predictably earning O'Reilly's blowhard wrath?

His citing the obvious -- that the war against drugs continues to be the counterproductive farce it's always been and that a new tack of treating adults like grownups is in order.

"Unless and until we can establish drug use as a civil liberty, we'll continue down this hopeless path," Stamper told a largely grey-haired, conservative-looking crowd during a Calgary stop to deliver his still-subversive message.

Stamper harkens back to his days as a beat cop when kicking down doors in a futile bid to stem the drug trade was a regular, even coveted, activity. "We were enforcing drug laws and frankly, it was fun," he says. "It was a sense of adventure."

He recalls how cuffing one 19-year-old suspect and stuffing him in a police cruiser drew this response from the arrestee: "He asked, 'do you have any Cheetos?' And I'm wondering 'what am I doing here?' "

"I came to the conclusion the drug war was doing more harm than good."

No country, he says, has a bigger drug problem than the U.S. and no country has a more aggressive approach in enforcing the unenforceable.

"It's the longest armed conflict in the history of the U.S. and we're no closer to winning it ... we've declared significant portions of our population the enemy."

He says only 1.3% of illicit drug users can be considered addicts, quite a few of whom can be found in the medical field.

In the past 35 years, all levels of government in the U.S. have invested $1 trillion in a crackdown that's only spawned corruption and violence due to the riches it's generated, he says.

"Almost all the major police scandals are attributable to the drug war - you're talking about obscene amounts of money," says Stamper. "We're putting our police officers in very dangerous and unwinnable situations."

The trade's lucrative lure is so great, people are being killed and tortured while terrorists are tapping it, he notes.

He points to the tale of Zurich, Switzerland, which created a so-called needle park in the 1990s in a bid to corral its intravenous drug users.

It proved a miserable failure, a seedy incubator of drug dealing, violence and fear among locals.

But when the city switched to supervised injection sites, those problems largely vanished, as did 70% of HIV and hepatitis C while two-thirds of addicts are now employed, he says.

In the liberal Netherlands, drug use among youth, he notes, is half of what it is in the U.S.

Drugs -- even the hardest ones -- should be legalized and their sale strictly regulated while peddling to minors harshly prohibited, says Stamper.

"We've found alcohol purveyors are very, very, very careful because they don't want to lose their licence," he says.

At the same time, people committing crimes due to drug use should be held accountable for their actions, says Stamper.

Several U.S. big city mayors agree with his conclusions but are hamstrung by political realities, says the member of the 5,000-strong group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

"The amount of support was encouraging but ultimately demoralizing because they won't talk about it publicly."

As for the Harper government's vow to hew closer to the demonstrably failed U.S. approach of tougher enforcement, Stamper can only wearily shake his head.

It's brown-nosing politics at their worst, he rightly concludes.

"The Canadian model has never embraced the more primitive aspects of U.S. enforcement ... they're courting the government of the U.S. and I see this as regressive," he says.

But even those in favour of a more liberalized approach will balk at Stamper's insistence that even the most fearsome drugs should be legalized, though tightly controlled.

That includes crystal meth.

His argument is the more sinister the substance, the more urgent the need to regulate its distribution.

It would seem an impossible sell to governments already criticized for reaping profits from the miseries of booze, tobacco and gambling.

But former top cop Stamper's right in at least calling for serious debate on a policy that's currently taking us nowhere.

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