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October 20, 2005 - Globe and Mail (Canada)

A Former U.S. Police Chief Stirs The Pot On Drug Laws

By Gary Mason

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

One of the most e-mailed stories from the Los Angeles Times website this week was an opinion piece written by Norm Stamper, former chief of the Seattle Police Department, entitled: "Let those dopers be."

"Sometimes people in law enforcement will hear it whispered that I'm a former cop who favors decriminalization of marijuana laws and they'll approach me the way they might a traitor or a snitch," Mr. Stamper begins the piece.

"So let me set the record straight. . . . I don't favor decriminalization. I favor legalization and not just of pot but of all drugs, including heroin, cocaine, meth, psychotropics, mushrooms and LSD."

If this sounds familiar, it should. On Tuesday, the Health Officers' Council of British Columbia released a groundbreaking report calling for exactly the same action.

It's one thing, however, for a group of physicians and academics to make such a suggestion in a relatively liberal-minded country like Canada. It's quite another for a former cop of Mr. Stamper's pedigree to make a similar call in George W. Bush's America.

Which is why the piece has created such a stir.

Mr. Stamper's thoughts on the United States's failed "war on drugs" are also contained in his new book called Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing. And while there is all sorts of juicy stuff about the level of corruption, sexism, racism and homophobia that still exists in the modern police force, it's Mr. Stamper's radical views on drugs that are the most thought-provoking.

In his piece for the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Stamper says he has never understood why adults shouldn't enjoy illicit drugs in the same way they do their pack of Marlboros or bottle of scotch.

"Prohibition of alcohol fell flat on its face," he writes. "The prohibition of other drugs rests on an equally wobbly foundation. Not until we choose to frame responsible drug use -- not an oxymoron in my dictionary -- as a civil liberty, will we be able to recognize the abuse of drugs, including alcohol, for what it is: a medical, not a criminal, matter."

Mr. Stamper contends that the U.S.'s Draconian approach to drug use may be the most "injurious" domestic policy since slavery.

"Want to cut back on prison overcrowding and save a bundle on the construction of new facilities?" he asks in the newspaper article. "Open the doors. Let the nonviolent drug offenders go. The huge increases in federal and state prison populations during the 1980s and 90s (from 139 per 100,000 residents in 1980 to 482 per 100,000 in 2003) were mainly for drug convictions.

"In 1980, 580,900 Americans were arrested on drug charges. By 2003, that figure had ballooned to 1,678,200. We're making more arrests for drug offences than for murder, manslaughter, forcible rape and aggravated assault combined. Feel safer?"

Mr. Stamper even recommends a plan for how "regulated legalization" might work.

This includes: a) permitting private companies to compete for licences to cultivate, harvest, manufacture, package and peddle drugs; b) creating a new federal regulatory agency; c) setting and enforcing standards of sanitation, potency and purity; d) banning advertising.

He believes legalizing all drugs would eventually dry up most stockpiles of currently illicit drugs. Combined with treatment, education and other public-health programs, Mr. Stamper feels U.S. cities and towns would be far healthier and safer places to live.

And various levels of government would see dramatic savings on the estimated $69-billion (U.S.) being spent annually to stamp out illegal drug use.

Reached at his home on Orcas Island, Wash., Mr. Stamper said he began formulating his thoughts on legalizing drugs as a young beat cop in San Diego. When he arrested hippies for smoking pot, he'd listen to them in the back of his car talking about getting their hands on some chips or chocolate bars and it occurred to him what a waste of taxpayers' money it was throwing these people in jail. "I just kept saying to myself, 'What the hell are we doing?' " he said.

Mr. Stamper often receives a hostile reaction when he is asked to speak at conferences about his views on drugs. At one recent conference, however, he was heartened by a conversation he had with the chief of police of one of the biggest cities in the United States.

The chief told Mr. Stamper he had read his book and agreed entirely with his views on drugs.

Momentarily stunned, Mr. Stamper asked the chief if he could quote him on that.

The chief looked at him like he was crazy.

"What the heck have you been smoking, man?" he laughed.

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