Wow. Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper has a guest column in The Seattle Times (originally published in the LA Times.) And… well… wow.
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 snitch. So let me set the record straight.
Yes, I was a cop for 34 years, the last six of which I spent as chief of Seattle’s police department.
But no, 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.
This is an issue that has troubled me a lot recently… one on which my personal views have nearly travelled a full 360 degrees over the past twenty-five years.
I started from a quasi-libertarian position grounded in my personal experience of the relatively harmless recreational drug use that surrounded me in college (I myself smoked a little pot, but quickly outgrew the vice.) While a strong streak of uptight prudishness kept me clean, I had close friends who did a lot of illicit drugs. I didn’t approve — and I let them know it — but I understood at the time that a drug conviction would cause far more harm than the drugs themselves, resulting in expulsion if not imprisonment, and costing them all the privilege and opportunity that our Ivy League education afforded us.
Over time though, my stance hardened, perhaps out of concern over the destructive scourge of crack cocaine, maybe just out of a need for consistency with my strong views on restricting access to tobacco. I was never a huge supporter of the so-called “War on Drugs” and its focus on interdiction — and I’ve never understood our nation’s irrational demonization of marijuana — but I also didn’t favor outright legalization. That, it seemed to me, would be giving up on a very real public health crisis. While my college friends were lucky enough to dodge a life of addiction, many other drug users are not.
But… in recent years I’ve come back around to my original position, not out of any shift in my view on drugs, but out of sheer utilitarianism… as Stamper points out, prohibition simply does not work, and in fact causes more societal harm than it seeks to prevent.
It’s not a stretch to conclude that our Draconian approach to drug use is the most injurious domestic policy since slavery. Want to cut back on prison overcrowding and save a bundle on the construction of new facilities? 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 offenses than for murder, manslaughter, forcible rape and aggravated assault combined. Feel safer?
I’ve witnessed the devastating effects of open-air drug markets in residential neighborhoods: children recruited as runners, mules and lookouts; drug dealers and innocent citizens shot dead in firefights between rival traffickers bent on protecting or expanding their markets; dedicated narcotics officers tortured and killed in the line of duty; prisons filled with nonviolent drug offenders; and drug-related foreign policies that foster political instability, wreak health and environmental disasters, and make life even tougher for indigenous subsistence farmers in places such as Latin America and Afghanistan. All because we like our drugs