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Cops Under Pressure To Deny They Support Legalizing Marijuana

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During California gubernatorial debates last week, Meg Whitman was asked about her position on Proposition 19 and marijuana legalization and said: "Every single law enforcement official in this entire state is against Proposition 19."

Former San Jose Chief of Police Joseph McNamara disagrees.

"She's absolutely wrong," said McNamara. "A lot of police officers both retired and on duty are in favor of passing it because they realize that the 'war on drugs' has failed and is going to fail."

For example, McNamara noted, hundreds have joined the advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

"I think she misstated what she believed," he said.

Whitman's office did not immediately respond to a HuffPost query requesting clarification.

One thing is true: California's active-duty police officers can't speak up in favor of legalizing marijuana for fear of losing their jobs.

For instance, scores of former officials recently signed a letter saying that marijuana prohibition only fuels more dangerous crime by enriching Mexican drug cartels who put guns on American streets -- but every member of the California police department waited until after they'd retired to sign.

HuffPost talked with cops who support Prop. 19 about the element of suppression.

"It's difficult, there are all kinds of factors that inhibit police officers from taking a public stance," said David Bratzer, a police officer for the Victoria Police Department in British Columbia who supports legalizing the drug. "They're worried about career advancement; harassment from colleagues or supervisors -- these are all issues that serving police officers have to consider."

Bratzer told HuffPost in an interview Wednesday night that even though many law enforcement officers will agree with him privately, only a handful of cops have been willing to make their opinions known publicly.

"The paramilitary structure of law enforcement discourages police officers from speaking out against the status quo even if that status quo is causing enormous damage in terms of wasted lives and resources," said Bratzer, who was careful to emphasize to HuffPost that his views are his alone and should not be attributed to his police department.

Groups ranging from The National Black Police Association to the California NAACP have endorsed Prop. 19, arguing that police waste valuable resources targeting non-violent cannabis consumers, while thousands of violent crimes go unsolved. Still most officers wait until they've left their jobs in law enforcement to take a stand.

"I was with the LAPD when Nixon declared the 'war on drugs' over 40 years ago and was one of the 'generals' on the front lines who helped implement that same failed drug policy that is still in effect today," said Stephen Downing, a retired LAPD deputy chief of police.

"By keeping marijuana illegal, we aren't preventing anyone from using it," added Downing in a statement. "The only results are billions of tax-free dollars being funneled into the pockets of bloodthirsty drug cartels and gangs who control the illegal market."

Downing is not the only former police chief who has come out against prohibition.

McNamara, now a research fellow in drug policy at Stanford University, has argued that the 60 percent of the cash that supports violent drug cartels comes from the sale of illegal marijuana.

"I think many veteran officers start out as I did being a drug war warrior," explained McNamara, who, since he began studying drug policy academically, has become increasingly convinced that the problem is prohibition not the plant.

"We were participants in the war on marijuana," he said. "But after a while, I realized that the majority of the cops I hired during my 18 years as a police chief had used marijuana before we hired them."

"I don't personally use it," he said, "but I think it's really stupid to put people in jail for that reason."

Still, McNamara insists there are good reasons for cops not to speak out in favor of marijuana legalization while they're on active duty.

"You take an oath to support the law, not just the laws you agree with," he told HuffPost in an interview. "You're under the authority of elected officials and so you can't speak out on policy issues in opposition to what your superiors say."

If police officers feel they can't enforce a law in good conscience, they can always leave. But often, McNamara said, they don't.

"People don't commit career suicide," he said. "So they do the best they can. Whether they agree with them or not, they have to carry out the laws." When he was a cop, McNamara said he tried to keep things in perspective. "I did, within the area of my discretion, enforce the law with as much common sense as I could," he said.

A poll of 1,067 likely voters released Thursday found 44 percent of likely voters said they plan to vote for Prop. 19, while 49 percent plan to vote against it. That's an 8-point drop in support since September when 52 percent of likely voters said they would vote for it.

"Personally I think it's a shame that more serving California police officers are not supporting reform publicly," said Bratzer. "History will remember this as a failure of leadership at the highest levels of law enforcement in the state."

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