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Norm Stamper

Norm Stamper

Posted: May 7, 2009 03:11 PM

Dear Gil:

Congratulations on your confirmation as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Bit of an irony, isn't it? Two Seattle police chiefs on opposite sides of the drug war? As "drug czar" (please retire that ill-begotten label), you are responsible for advising the president and vice president on drug control programs, and for coordinating drug policies among all federal agencies. I, on the other hand, as a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, am devoted to ending the drug war, along with the prohibition model on which it's based.

But how far apart are we, really?

During your tenure as police chief you either championed or tolerated sensible policies such as methadone treatment, clean needle exchanges, medical marijuana, and a Seattle voter initiative requiring you and the city attorney to make simple adult marijuana possession your lowest enforcement priority (lower, indeed, than jaywalking). You also continued the practice of assigning police officers to Hempfest, knowing your cops would make no arrests for possession of marijuana, thus ensuring a safe and peaceful event. These modest steps represent progress, and they position our former city as a leader in local reform.

But I'd be less than honest if I didn't point to some genuinely worrisome positions you've taken recently.

In responding to written interrogatories from Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee you claimed there is no scientific consensus supporting medicinal marijuana; announced your opposition to legalizing marijuana; and defended the classification of pot, along with heroin, PCP, and GHB, as a "Schedule 1" drug--which means, I guess, that you believe it is highly addictive and possessed of no medical value.

Sadly, these views put you in league with your ONDCP predecessor, John Walters--he of the magnificent obsession with "killer weed"--who during his tenure silenced science, lied habitually, and refused to debate those with opposing views.

How much of your stance on these issues falls into the category of confirmation politics? How much represents your true feelings? Either way, your early public comments are disconcerting, coming from an administration headed by a president who's proclaimed the drug war an "utter failure," and who has advocated more of a public health approach to drug control.

Still, you did stand up to the shriller apostles of the drug war.

You wrote, for example, that needle exchanges are "not a cause of significant public safety problems," that they are part of a "comprehensive approach for drug abuse prevention, treatment, and care, including efforts to reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases."

You share Obama and Biden's position that sentencing guidelines for crack vs. powder forms of cocaine are "wrong and should be eliminated."

And I loved your reply to Senator Grassley's question of whether marijuana is a gateway drug: "Often, marijuana is the first illicit drug that young people use. I support efforts to educate young people about the dangers of illicit drugs, including marijuana." In other words, Senator: No. Pot is not a "gateway" drug.

Likewise, your answer to the Iowa lawmaker's query about whether the medical marijuana case of Gonzales v. Raich was a proper decision. "...the Supreme Court's decision...is the current law of our land. As a result...I am duty bound to honor it and so I [will] until such time as the supreme law of our land on this subject changes." The "subject," simplified, refers to whether the federal government should trump the states on marijuana enforcement. Sounds like another "no" to me.

You oppose "mandatory minimums" which have resulted in millions of nonviolent drug offenders going to prison for very long stretches. "...I understand and respect the ability of states, under the longstanding principles of federalism," you wrote, "to make state policy decisions within the scope of their authority and jurisdiction." Sounds like you're fully on board with the president and Attorney General Holder in calling off the DEA raids on medical marijuana dispensaries. (Federalism. Smart invocation, Gil. Appeals to many Americans, including thoughtful conservatives of a "dual federalist" stripe.)

So, how open will you be to new ways of looking at old, disastrous drug policies? You claim to support "evidence-based," data-driven solutions. You have, in your own words, "long recognized that to be successful as a police chief you have to rely on and work collaboratively with...other governmental and non-governmental entities." You pledged to "re-establish valid working relationships with non-governmental entities and stakeholders."

Drug policy reformers, mushrooming in strength and number every day, are committed to sensible drug laws, Gil. We will support your every worthy incremental step on the road to rational government policies. Of course, some of us, like LEAP members, will not be content with anything less than an end to the drug war, and the replacement of prohibition with a regulatory model based on sound public health principles. But that shouldn't stop you from making a place for us at the table. We are, after all, stakeholders too.

Finally, as we begin this new era of drug policy debate, is it too much to ask that you vanquish the vocabulary of "war"? We all know that when Richard Nixon labeled drugs "public enemy number one" and vowed all-out war on them he was in truth declaring war on us, the citizenry of the United States--especially the young, the poor, and people of color.

In an April 20, 2009 proposal to end the drug war, the Drug Policy Alliance urged us to recognize that while "DPA's work is all about drugs on the surface, dig down a little deeper and one finds it's not really about drugs at all." It's about "much larger struggles in American and international society--over the extent and limits of individual freedom, what it means to be a free society, and how we deal with both phantom and real threats to health, life, and security."

You have been given what DPA calls a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to help us reclaim our freedom as Americans, and to live safer, healthier lives.

Please don't blow it, Gil.

Warm regards,
Norm

Norm Stamper was Gil Kerlikowske's immediate predecessor as Seattle's chief of police, having served from 1994-2000.

 
 
 

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