|Drug War Chronicle:
What are you calling for in terms of drug policy?
Chief Norm Stamper:
I believe it is time for a radical overhaul of the nation's drug laws.
It's time to get out of the business of drug enforcement as we know it.
The drug war has been an abysmal failure, causing more damage than it has
prevented. In the book's chapter on drug policy, I wrote that I favored
"decriminalization," but if we go to another printing, it's one of two
or three things I will revise. What I really meant was legalization
and regulation. I don't think the government should get completely
out of the business -- it should set standards for purity and regulate
the business the same way it regulates alcohol and tobacco. Some
people say you can't legalize heroin or meth or PCP, and in the book I
took the position that PCP should stay illegal. But upon reflection,
even though there are real problems with using some of these drugs, I think
everything an adult wants to ingest, inhale, or inject should in fact be
available to him or her. Adults who decide to drive around under
the influence of drugs or batter a spouse or furnish substances to children
or commit any other criminal acts should be held accountable, but the current
crime of drug use should just not exist.
Chronicle: How widespread
are your views on drug reform among law enforcement executives?
Stamper: There are
a minority of chiefs and sheriffs who favor decriminalization or legalization,
but you are not likely to get too many incumbents speaking freely about
this sort of view on a problem they've been confronting for decades.
Last week, I spoke with a chief who said he agreed with me in my drug chapter
and I said "Can I quote you?" and he said "No," so I won't. It's
a sad commentary that we can't at least have that conversation. It
would bring to the table some of the people who are almost as affected
by this as drug users and their families, and that's law enforcement.
Society decides to use the criminal justice model to address what is essentially
a public health issue, and that's as shortsighted as anything I can imagine.
I got serious talking about
these issues back in the early 1990s. I gave a series of speeches
to corporate executives where I spoke about the folly of the drug war and
my objections to it, and I found that those business folks got it.
They understand supply and demand and the cost of government, and some
of them may have moral doubts about legalization, but very few objected
to what I was saying. In the late 1990s, I spoke to the Cascadia
Mayors' Conference -- cities like Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver.
I spoke to the mayors and their staffs and laid out exactly this position,
and all around the room heads were nodding. There wasn't a single
objection. There was much agreement in that room about the failure
of the drug war.
While I don't focus exclusively
on drug issues, I intend to do everything I can to help advance this cause,
help the people who are out there doing this work. I think we have
demonized drug use from the beginning, back in the days of the Harrison
Act , when it was mainly about revenue. We had to demonize
the behavior, and over the decades since, instead of talking about public
health or medical problems we talk about drug scenes. The notion
that drug users or drug scenes are criminal by definition allows us to
behave toward them any way we see fit. And with the war on drugs
metaphor, they become the enemy -- with little appreciation of the fact
that the enemy is my neighbor, my brother, my child. That makes it
all the easier to reject the notion that there is any constituency working
on behalf of these criminals. But when we are investing billions
and billions of dollars year in and year out to wage war against this class
of people among us, our moral and financial investment has backfired.
It hasn't paid off, but it's very hard for people like politicians and
law enforcement, who are invested in the drug war. Those on the supply
reduction side are not about to fold up their tents and go home.
It's a cash cow. I
know from personal experience that asset forfeiture produces substantial
sums of money for local police. There are few chiefs who would fraudulently
use that money, but it creates a hell of an incentive for any character-challenged
beat cop or chief to misuse those funds. The real question is what
would happen if police were taken out of the drug enforcement picture.
I think we'd see a substantial reduction in property crime, for one thing.
We would be able to provide drugs to those who want them instead of having
them rip off your car stereo. What we are doing is just folly.
We need to be spending money on prevention, education, and treatment for
those who want it, but we don't get it because we're spending too much
on law enforcement. Those invested in the drug war continue to use
their own propaganda to advance the cause of drug enforcement.
Chronicle: Those chiefs
and sheriffs who disagree with you on drug policy must have seen the same
sort of eye-opening things that caused you to rethink drug prohibition.
Are they true believers, or do they know better and are just keeping their
Stamper: Most are true
believers, but a sizeable and influential minority is just being hypocritical,
and that's unconscionable. They know this war on drugs is unwinnable,
it's just throwing good money after bad, yet they continue to pursue ever
more funding for drug enforcement. That's almost pathological.
If you really believe you're making a huge public policy mistake and yet
you talk publicly an entirely different game, you're the worst kind of
hypocrite. But as I said, most chiefs are true believers. They
really believe the only way to keep drugs out of junior's arm is to clamp
down on drug use and spend tons of money to enforce the drug laws.
Chronicle: How do you
bring the issue in from the cold?
Stamper: I think it
comes down to the physics and politics of the tipping point. I believe
that with people of influence and integrity -- like Law
Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Drug
Policy Alliance, and DRCNet
coming together -- we are drawing near to the tipping point. It is
time to have this conversation about drug reform. Chiefs who are
emphatic and articulate on the issue have been reluctant to speak up, but
we are seeing more and more people muster their courage and connect their
hearts with their mouths.
One thing we need to do is
make sure those people in law enforcement who do speak out are wrapped
in support. People who are afraid of endangering their careers need
to know they will be supported. Each one who comes out brings us
closer to critical mass, to the tipping point. We don't need 51%
of police chiefs; it might be only 8% if you get the right people speaking
out at the right time in the right circumstances. I've found through
experience, for example, with the way we deal with domestic violence, that
you don't need a majority of your cops supporting reform in that, just
a few percent. Then you start to see policing that is more dignified
and more respectful of the citizen. There is a real contagion effect
when people of good will who have done their homework speak out.
Chronicle: You spoke
of chiefs worrying about endangering their careers if they speak out for
drug reform. How so?
Stamper: If he's a
sheriff, he might not get reelected. If he's a chief, he's sitting
on top of a sizeable narcotics budget, and that money could evaporate.
You don't get too many chiefs saying please take this pot of money away
from me. It depends on the political makeup of the community.
I spoke out some in conservative San Diego, but then I moved to progressive
Seattle to be chief, where I could say things like this. But if I
were chief in, say, Orange County, California, I might be committing political
suicide by advocating for significant drug reform.
There are chiefs whose private
view is that the drug war is silly or stupid, but they still make public
statements pushing drug enforcement aggressively. They handle their
integrity conflict by reducing the amount of resources they commit to narcotics
even while they're talking tough. They're basically assigning it
a lower enforcement priority. The problem is, as long as you've got
the laws on the books, you better be able to show you are enforcing them.
Many of our vice laws are ridiculous and counterproductive, but the last
message I want to send to the community is that I'm not going to enforce
them. When you avert your glance from gambling or prostitution, the
first thing people ask is whether your agency is protecting that activity.
Imagine what they would say about a hands-off policy for drug dealers.
As long as the laws are on the books in a democratic society, the last
thing you want is police not enforcing them. Somebody once told me
that if I believed drug law enforcement was misguided, I should get out
of the business. No, I shouldn't. The lawmakers need to get
me out of this business. To do that, it is critical that police executives
who have thought this through work with them to get those laws changed.
Chronicle: How does
enforcing drug prohibition pose problems for law enforcement? Does
it reinforce negative elements of what we might call cop culture?
Stamper: You hear police
chiefs talking about the necessity to build trust and respect between the
community and the police. But when our narcotics officers are working
drug dealers and turning sellers into snitches and cultivating stables
of informants it fosters an environment where public confidence gets compromised.
Look, there will always be a need for informants for some crimes -- that
will never go away, and it shouldn't. But when you're dealing with
drug dealers and trying to develop snitches, it can get real ugly.
A lot of cops go bad. They may have been vulnerable in terms of personal
ethics, and put them in narcotics or vice and watch out! And then
there are cops who take it to a whole other level, like the ones in the
LA Ramparts scandal. They stole drugs. And they set people
up. There is a special place in hell for cops who do that.
What those Ramparts officers were was a criminal syndicate.
Chronicle: This week
I'm writing yet another story about one of those hyper-militarized, SWAT
team raids gone bad, this time with a 23-year-old kid killed over a couple
of ounces of pot. Isn't there a better way of doing this kind of
policing? And even if such assaults are necessary, what's with the
trashing of people's houses and possessions? That seems to happen
with great regularity.
Stamper: The rationale
for "high risk warrant service," such as drug raids, is to take the suspect
down in his own home, usually at o'dark thirty, and to hit the house with
sudden, unexpected, overwhelming force, both decisions designed to catch
the suspect unawares, reduce the chances that he can/will get to a gun
or dump the dope, and minimize risks to officers, neighbors, innocent passersby
who might be caught in the line of fire if there's any shooting.
In other words, the cops are trying to control every aspect, every variable
of the operation. Of course, this doesn't explain or excuse the "wrong
house" mistakes, or shots fired unnecessarily. For that, I think
you look to judgment and discipline compromised by fear, adrenalin, machismo
-- and drug war zealotry.
As for the trashing, as a
reformed cop, I can tell you in my rookie year I used to really enjoy kicking
in a door and rifling through drawers in search of a seed. It was
insane, a reflection of some very twisted priorities and a badge-heavy
hunger for power. I think it is part of an adventuring mentality.
Look, if you're in search of notes from a terrorist plot, rip the shit
out of everything, but there is no justification for tearing up somebody's
home or business on a drug raid. The lack of civility that too often
accompanies these raids is very counterproductive. It does nothing
but further the mistrust, suspicion, and objections so many citizens have
to police practices.