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August 21, 2006 - Seattle Post-Intelligencer (WA)

Advocates For Legalizing Marijuana Tout The Benefits At Hempfest

By Mike Lewis, P-I Reporter

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Former Seattle police Chief Norm Stamper doesn't have dreadlocks, a Zig-Zag T-shirt or a single Phish album. He just sounds like it.

"It's laughable when people say we are winning the drug war," said Stamper, who had just finished a main-stage speech to the crowd gathered Sunday at the Seattle Hempfest in Myrtle Edwards Park.

"The people who are prosecuting the drug war are invested psychically and financially. It's a holy war for them.

"We should legalize all drugs."

While the comments might be unusual for most law enforcement careerists, they are nothing new for Stamper, who was Seattle's top cop from 1994 to 2000.

That is why organizers brought him in for the popular two-day, pro-pot festival.

Organizers estimated 150,000 people flowed into the waterfront park, which for the weekend turned into a dense village of food booths, stages, arts-and-crafts sellers, hemp product manufacturers, leafleteers, hackysack circles and picnickers.

Now in its 15th year, Hempfest is at its core all about decriminalizing marijuana. So is Stamper, especially after years of witnessing firsthand what he sees as the futility of the federal drug war.

The drugs are winning, he said. It's time to change tactics.

"Police should be focused on violent crime," he told the crowd.

Stamper, a member of pro-legalization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), said many of his peers agree with him but will only say so privately.

He told a story about a recent chat with a police chief in a "major American city" who had read Stamper's 2005 book, "Breaking Rank."

In it, Stamper advocates legalizing and regulating drugs as a way to reduce collateral problems such as addiction, violence and property crime.

"He came up to me after a talk and said he agreed with the chapter on drugs," Stamper said. "I asked, 'Can I quote you publicly?'

"He said, 'What have you been smoking?' "

Stamper saw similar reticence Sunday, as he preached to the choir in the sunny, 90-degree heat.

Waiting for hand-dipped ice-cream bars in the festival's munchie midway, Seattleites Tony Witherspoon, 31, and Neil Toland, 28, said they don't see pot as a rip in society's fabric.

"I wouldn't think a little weed is going to hurt anybody," Witherspoon said.

Added Toland, "There needs to be a little space for (pot)."

Creating that political space is what the festival is all about, chief organizer Dominic Holden said.

Hempfest has matured over the decade and a half it's existed, he said. Initially, it went unnoticed by local police.

Then, Holden recalled, it became tense and even adversarial between organizers and police in the late 1990s -- at a time when Stamper was chief.

"For a while there, it seemed like it would go downhill," Holden said. "They were doing backstage raids looking for pot. They didn't find any."

Since then, the political landscape has changed, Holden said.

First, state voters approved medical marijuana. Subsequently, Seattle residents said they are not worried about pot as a law enforcement issue.

Now, he said, the relationship is much more mellow.

"We all want it to be a safe festival," Holden said. "The police have been great. Very collaborative.

"This might be our biggest festival ever."

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