Ex Seattle Police Chief Slams Drug War, Argues that Violence Stems from Prohibition

Press Release June 21, 2005
Media Contact

Peter Barrett at (646)437-1231 or Tony Newman at (646)335-5384

Norm Stamper is not the only prominent public figure who believes that the decriminalization of all drugs would drastically decrease the crime associated with the business–plenty of politicians and law enforcement officials have quietly approached him to tell him that they agree. But he is one of the few to go on the record.

Stamper, a career cop who served as Seattle’s chief of police from 1994 to 2000, has just released his controversial first book, Breaking Rank, a startlingly clear-eyed, compelling evaluation of the state of policing in the United States today. While reflecting on his personal experiences on the beat–he started out as a police officer in 1966– Stamper acknowledges systemic corruption and calls for systematic solutions. Among them is his statement that “it’s time to withdraw the troops in the war on drugs.”

In Breaking Rank, Stamper clearly demonstrates the failures of our current war on drugs and offers an inspiring vision for how we as a society can come up with humane alternatives to tackle this problem.

Excerpts from Breaking Rank:

Casualties of the Drug War

Think of this war’s real casualties: tens of thousands of otherwise innocent Americans incarcerated, many for 20 years, some for life; families ripped apart; drug traffickers and blameless bystanders shot dead on city streets; narcotics officers assassinated here and abroad, with prosecutors, judges, and elected officials in Latin America gunned down for their courageous stands against the cartels; and all those dollars spent on federal, state, and local cops, courts, prosecutors, prisons, probation, parole, and pee-in-the-bottle programs. Even federal aid to bribe distant nations to stop feeding our habit.

Police Corruption due to the Drug War

Almost all of the major police corruption scandals of the last several decades have had their roots in drug enforcement. We’ve seen robbery, extortion, drug dealing, drug stealing, drug use, false arrests, perjury, throw-down guns, and murder. And these are the good guys?

There isn’t an unscathed police department in the country. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Memphis, Miami, Oakland, Dallas, Kansas City–all have recently suffered stunning police drug scandals. You won’t find a single major city in the country that has not fired or arrested at least one of its own for some drug-related offense in the past few years, including San Diego and Seattle…;

The Solution: Decriminalization

Decriminalization means you take the crime out of the use of drugs, but preserve government’s right–and responsibility–to regulate the field.

How would it work? If I were the new (and literal) Drug Czar, I would have private companies compete for licenses to cultivate, harvest, manufacture, package, and peddle drugs. I’d create a new federal regulatory agency (with no apologies to libertarians and neo-cons) to: (1) set and enforce standards of sanitation, potency, and purity; (2) ban advertising; (3) impose taxes, fees, and fines to be used for drug abuse prevention and treatment, and to cover the costs of administering the new regulatory agency; and (4) police the industry much as alcoholic beverage control agencies operate in the states.

The Positive Results of Decriminalization

For starters, it would put illicit traffickers out of business; their obscene, untaxed profits evaporating overnight. Dealers and runners and mules and nine-year-old lookouts would be off street corners, and out of the line of fire. It would take much of the fun out of being a gang member (gang-banging being synonymous these days with drug dealing, “markets” synonymous with “turf”). Firearms employed in the expansion and protection of drug markets would go quiet–a welcome change for peace-loving citizens, and the nation’s cops. Drug raids on the wrong house would be a thing of the past.

And since most junkies finance their addiction by breaking into your home, stealing your car, or mugging you on the street, crimes like burglary, robbery, auto theft, and car prowl would drop. A lot. Justice Department studies linking patterns of property crime and drug use suggest a reduction of 35 to 50 percent in those crimes alone.

Politicians and the Drug War

When, as chief of the Seattle Police Department, I made my views on drugs known at a conference of mayors from Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, the response was overwhelmingly positive. In presentations I made to business groups throughout Southern California in the early nineties, the typical reaction was, ‘Why can’t our government see the folly of the drug war? It’s just plain bad business, a gigantic waste of taxpayer money.’

A handful of politicians and even a police chief or two do favor decriminalization… Why don’t they speak up? They’re scared. They think they’ll be voted out of office or forced to turn in their badges.

But they “misunderestimate” the wisdom, the common sense of their constituencies. Americans want to see their tax dollars spent on prevention and enforcement of predatory crimes, crimes that frighten them, take money out of their pockets, restrict their freedoms and cause them to change the way they live.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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