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Citing Failed War on Drugs, Former Seattle Police Chief Calls for Legalization of Marijuana and All Drugs

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Norm Stamper is a thirty-four-year police officer who retired as Seattle’s chief of police in 2000. He now supports the legalization of marijuana and an advisory board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and a speaker for the 10,000-member Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: With the Obama administration’s increasing focus on drug-related violence in Mexico, calls to rethink how the US has fought the so-called “war on drugs” are growing louder. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged last week that, quote, “what we’ve been doing has not worked.”

But advocates of legalizing and regulating marijuana were dealt a blow when President Obama laughed off their question during the President’s first live internet town hall on Thursday.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There was one question that was voted on that ranked fairly high, and that was whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy and job creation. And I don’t know what this says about the online audience, but I just want — I don’t want people to think that — this was a fairly popular question. We want to make sure that it was answered. The answer is, no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy. So, alright.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, my next guest knows what it’s like to be on the frontlines of fighting the war on drugs in this country and doesn’t think marijuana is a laughing matter. Norm Stamper is a thirty-four-year police officer who retired as Seattle’s chief of police in 2000. His successor, Gil Kerlikowske, has just been nominated to be President Obama’s drug czar. But Norm Stamper supports legalization of marijuana. He’s an advisory board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, known as NORML. He is a speaker for the 10,000-member Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Norm Stamper is the author of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing, and he’s joining us now via video stream, joining us from the island on which he lives.

In fact, Norm Stamper, where do you live?

NORM STAMPER: I live on Orcas Island, which is in the San Juan Islands in Washington state.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we thank you so much for being with us. Why do you support the legalization of marijuana? It may surprise many to hear that the former police chief of Seattle, who was in charge during the Battle of Seattle, supports normalizing marijuana.

NORM STAMPER: I actually support the legalization of all drugs. And in fact, the more dangerous or sinister or sensationally reported the experience of certain drugs, the greater the justification for the government, as opposed to drug cartels and street traffickers, to regulate that commerce. There’s been more harm done by the drug war than good. We have spent a trillion dollars prosecuting that war since Richard Nixon proclaimed drugs public enemy number one and declared all-out war on them.

And what do we have to show for it? While rates can fluctuate, drugs are more readily available today at lower prices and higher levels of potency than ever before. So it’s a colossal failure. And the only way to put these cartels out of business and to restore health and safety to our neighborhoods is to regulate that commerce as opposed to prohibiting it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Norm Stamper, your reaction to the comments of both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when she was in Mexico last week, and of President Obama?

NORM STAMPER: Well, quoting a friend and colleague of mine, a superior court judge from California, reacting to the Secretary of State’s comments, “She described the problem accurately; the solution was wrong.”

I think President Obama’s remarks could be interpreted several different ways. I’ve had numerous reactions to comments that I made about it last week, and some saying, “Oh, cut the President some slack. Give him a break. What he was saying, possibly, was that — ‘Give me a break. Of all the issues that we’re facing — you know, an imploding economy, healthcare issues, energy, education — how could we even possibly think that marijuana is such a big issue? So, he may, in fact, have been suggesting that the drug itself was not a big issue.” I don’t think that’s how most people took it. I think most people took it as a dismissal of a very serious issue.

There are millions and millions of people who are marijuana smokers today. They’re not all stoners, in the stereotypical sense of that word. Many of them smoke marijuana because they cannot tolerate opioids, and they are terminal cancer patients, for example, or people suffering debilitating, intractable pain. Many don’t smoke the drug at all but care very deeply about our civil liberties and believe that the course of the drug war has simply been wrong and misguided. And it’s not a laughing matter. It is, in fact, something that needs to be taken seriously.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Norm Stamper, could you talk about your own evolution on this issue? Obviously, as a veteran policeman and then a police chief, you had to incarcerate at various times people who were drug users, not just drug traffickers. And the evolution of your thinking on this issue?

NORM STAMPER: My first epiphany was as a beat cop, a rookie beat cop. I had arrested a nineteen-year-old in his own home in possession of marijuana, had him in the back seat of my police car. This was, incidentally, after having kicked in his door on the strength of having smelled what we described in those days in our police reports as “burning green vegetable matter.” And I had him hooked up, had him in the back seat of my caged police car. I was driving him to jail, and it came to me: I could be doing real police work. I could be intervening in domestic violence situations. I could be looking for the suspect who was carrying away my beat with daytime residential burglaries. I could be doing something, in other words, to stop the kind of crime that hurts people, scares people, causes people to change the way they lived. That was my first experience.

Throughout my career, moving up through the ranks, moving ultimately from San Diego, where I spent twenty-eight years in that police department, to Seattle, I sort of refined my views and began to speak out much more publicly about the harms of the drug war and about alternatives to that war.

AMY GOODMAN: Norm Stamper, what do you think should happen to the hundreds of thousands of drug offenders who are currently in jail?

NORM STAMPER: Well, I think those who are in jail for nonviolent offenses should have their cases reviewed, case by case, and I believe that given the fact that we had an explosion in the construction of jails and prisons, particularly during the ’80s, we need to reserve those jail spaces, those cells, for people who are certifiably dangerous, those who have made it clear that they don’t belong among the free in our society, because they’re simply too dangerous. And yet, we have those tens of thousands of cells, hundreds of thousands of cells, being occupied by nonviolent drug offenders. I would release those who, on a case by case basis, can reasonably be predicted not to cause problems for society. I think there’s much more comprehensive drug policy reform that’s necessary first.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Norm Stamper, here in New York, the state legislature and the governor have, in recent days, reached final agreement on ending, for the most part, the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. There actually is — the press reports today are that they’ve actually agreed, as part of the new budget, to close three state prisons. And clearly, there will be some re-sentencing of some of the former people who have been in jail on nonviolent drug offenses. Your sense of how the mandatory sentencing around drug offenses, particularly, have affected the racial disparities in our prison system on the issue of drugs?

NORM STAMPER: Wildly disproportionate numbers of people of color, young people, poor people have gone to jail and ultimately to prison behind this drug war for decades now. No one will convince me that racism and discrimination does not take place. How much of that is individual, how much of that is institutional or structural, is something for others to argue. The bottom line is, a whole lot of these people have been uprooted from their communities, detached from their families. They’ve lost employment. They’ve lost student loans. They’ve lost public housing. And they’ve lost their freedom.

The Rockefeller laws, of course, as you described them, I think have been seen by an awful lot of people as draconian. And when you stop and think about the huge numbers of people who have been imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses — and most of those, for simple possession of marijuana — is just heartbreaking. I’d say it’s about time. “About time” would have been decades ago, literally back in the ’70s. Mandatory minimums are institutionalized injustice. And it’s so gratifying finally to see that they are becoming, you know, the relic that they should have been determined years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Norm Stamper, I just wanted to wrap with a final question about what happened here ten years ago. You know, it’s very interesting to come back to Seattle now in 2009. It was, of course, the end of November in 1999 that the Battle of Seattle took place. You were the police chief here. It might surprise many people to hear the sort of trajectory you’ve gone on now. But I’m wondering about your reflections now ten years later. I mean, this time, ten years later, the global economic meltdown, where the people in the streets ten years ago were really taking on this issue of unbridled corporate power globalizing around the world. What are you thinking today about the reaction of Seattle ten years ago?

NORM STAMPER: Well, clearly, the Battle in Seattle is my legacy. One week out of my thirty-four years defines me as a cop and as a police chief. And I can bemoan the unfairness of that, but it is true for many people; that’s the only way they know me. And I made major mistakes leading up to that week and during that week, and all I can say is that I’m awfully sorry I didn’t do certain things and that I did do other things. Most of that is contained in my book, and I’m grateful for your mention of that book. There is a chapter entitled “Snookered in Seattle.”

Having said that, what was accomplished during that week was to put globalization and anti-globalization into our vocabulary and to put the whole issue on the map. I really strongly believe that the experience during that week framed a whole lot of issues that people didn’t think about at all prior to that time. And I think, as you’ve described it, we’re now reaping what we have sown in the form of unbridled globalization and unfettered free trade. And I think it’s time for all of us in this country, as we attempt to pull ourselves out of this global economic meltdown, to really take a look at what issues of social and economic justice mean within the context of globalization.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Norm Stamper, what’s been the reaction of your colleagues in law enforcement — I know there are many who support your view, but those who worked side by side with you — as you become more outspoken on this issue of reforming the marijuana laws?

NORM STAMPER: Last week in Minnesota, before a state house committee, a committee that is considering medical marijuana, I was accused of disrespecting police officers. I quickly corrected that police chief, who was wearing a yellow tie with the language “police lines, do not cross.” I apologized if I gave the impression, because I have the deepest respect for frontline police officers. They didn’t make these laws. They are victims of the tension and the hostility that is associated with enforcing or prosecuting the drug war. So it’s not our frontline cops that we need to be concerned about.

The vast majority of police officers, I believe, would legalize marijuana today. They have varying views on the other drugs. Many officers, including police chiefs and sheriffs, have whispered their support to me. When I say, “Well, may I quote you?” the response is, “What have you been smoking? No, you cannot do that.”

You know, some have suggested that President Obama’s dismissal of the marijuana issue last week in the online town hall meeting was done because it’s the third rail. Well, we’ve made it that. Americans have, in fact, bought the propaganda of the drug war. We can’t conceive of it as a public health issue, this whole issue of drug use and drug abuse and prevention and education and treatment, as well as enforcement. We need to rethink it. We need to have the courage, the will and sort of the analytical take on the systemic implications that are associated with the drug war and recognize that there is a much better alternative out there. And I think a whole lot of cops understand it. Certainly, the 10,000 members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition get it.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Norm Stamper, though we said “finally” before, just back on that point, when you said you felt you made many mistakes ten years ago, what did you feel was your major mistake at the time?

NORM STAMPER: Not vetoing a decision to use chemical agents, also known as teargas, against hundreds of nonviolent demonstrators. That was on the first morning of the major emergence, if you will, of the conflict, of the hostilities. I honestly believed at that time, and did for five years after my retirement — it was only on book tour and listening to a whole lot of people who were in that city at that time that I concluded that there was an alternative to what we did.

Just quickly, tactically speaking, we had a huge intersection, strategic intersection, through which aid cars and police officers and fire units could not travel if they were needed for any kind of a medical emergency, even unassociated with the World Trade Organization conference. And so, the cop in me blessed that decision. Warning was given. It was announced repeatedly. I personally was present at the time. I walked to the far side of the crowd to make sure that the legal warning that was given through the bullhorn could be heard, that it was clear that the ramifications of disobedience would be understood by all. And I blessed that decision and, as I said, for five years after supported it.

The chief in me, however, should have stepped in and said, “Yes, it is possible that a woman giving birth in an office building or a local hotel, somebody in cardiac arrest on the twenty-seventh floor of the Sheraton, would be difficult for us to reach.” But what really are the odds of that happening? The cop in me said, “Doesn’t matter what the odds are. We need to be available. We need to be ready.” The chief in me should have said, “For the greater good, we ought not to have brought those chemical agents out. We ought not to have, I think, raised the stakes.” I do not fault people at the scene; I fault myself.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Norm Stamper, I want to thank you for being with us. He has written a book about his experiences as a top cop here in Seattle, the police chief during the Battle of Seattle and now a spokesperson for the legalization of drugs, speaking to us via video stream from his home on Orcas Island. His book is called Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing.

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