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 mouths shut?
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
Enforcement Against Prohibition, the
Policy Alliance, and
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
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.