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“Seattle’s Lessons for London”

ColumnApril 01, 2009

    Protests dominate the news as world leaders gather in London for the Group of Twenty meeting. War, the economy, corporate globalization and grass-roots opposition to financial bailouts are at the forefront.

    Executives receive golden parachutes while workers and unions are forced to make concessions. President Barack Obama has inherited a slew of deep, interlocked crises, yet elicits broad global hope that he can be an agent of change.

    Obama last week held an “Open for Questions” town hall meeting, streamed online, with questions posed by the public and voted on to rank their popularity. Obama answered a question about marijuana:

    “Three point five million people voted. I have to say that 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 … 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.”

    That question’s popularity might indicate audience concern with U.S. drug policy, and the enormous toll on our society of the so-called war on drugs.

    I am traveling around the country this spring, visiting more than 70 cities. In Seattle, I interviewed a strong critic of U.S. drug laws, who said, “I … support the legalization of all drugs.”

    These words come from an unlikely advocate: former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper. Stamper is an advisory board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and a speaker for the organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. He explained:

    “We have spent a trillion dollars prosecuting that war … and what do we have to show for it? [D]rugs 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.”

    As Stamper pushes for reform, his successor as Seattle police chief, Gil Kerlikowske, is, as Stamper blogged, “on his way to the other Washington to assume the mantle of ‘drug czar’ … to make his case for a continuation of the nation’s drug laws.”

    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted recently, en route to Mexico, “Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade.” It also fuels a rising U.S. prison population (some cash-strapped states are simply releasing nonviolent drug offenders to save money), the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, and the epidemic of drug-related violence in Mexico. Drug cartels purchase AK-47 assault rifles and other arms in the United States, then smuggle them into Mexico. Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told me recently, “The folks in Mexico have figured out what criminals in the U.S. figured out a long time ago: Our weak and nearly nonexistent laws in the U.S. are making it very easy for these guns to get to Mexico.”

    With the increasing state-by-state acceptance of the medical uses of marijuana, with decriminalization of possession of small amounts in various jurisdictions and with the high cost of imprisonment versus treatment, public sentiment seems disposed to favor a change.

    It took Stamper years to learn the hard lessons of the failed war on drugs. Hard lessons seem to be his forte.

    He was the Seattle police chief during the World Trade Organization protests of 1999: “I made major mistakes leading up to that week and during that week. … Not vetoing a decision to use chemical agents, also known as tear gas, against hundreds of nonviolent demonstrators.” He now sounds more like one of the WTO protesters his forces tear-gassed: “We’re now reaping what we have sown in the form of unbridled globalization and unfettered free trade … 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.”

    The leaders of the G-20 in London, and those at the NATO summit to follow, have an opportunity to learn from Norm Stamper, to instruct their security to put away the Tasers and the tear gas, and to shock the world by seriously considering the voices of the protesters outside.

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