By Norm Stamper
Anyone blind to the irony? Gil Kerlikowske, my successor, is on his way to
the other Washington to assume the mantle of “drug czar.” I am, on the other
hand, a proud and vocal member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
Gil will have
a national, indeed international platform from which to make his case for a
continuation of the nation’s drug laws. I’ll use this space, at least for this
initial post, to make the argument that our drug policies don’t work, and that
the “War on Drugs” has caused far more harm than good.
Since Richard Nixon pronounced drugs “Public Enemy Number One” and declared
all-out war on them in 1971, we have spent over $1 trillion prosecuting that
war. We’ve incarcerated tens of millions of our fellow citizens for nonviolent
drug offenses, arresting wildly disproportionate numbers of young people, poor
people, people of color–most for simple possession of marijuana. Wrenched from
their families, these folks have lost jobs, forfeited school loans, been booted
out of public housing. And to what end?
Drugs are more readily available today, at lower prices and higher levels of
potency than in the history of the drug war. Prices fluctuate, use levels ebb
and flow but one thing remains constant: the unrepealable law of supply and
If people want mood or mind-altering drugs, suppliers will make sure
they get them. And, as long as those drugs remain illegal, the illicit, untaxed
profits associated with them will continue to grow. As will the violence
associated with their commerce.
Prohibition, as we learned during the 1920s, breeds lawlessness. In fact, it
guarantees it. Yesterday’s bootleggers and today’s drug traffickers must arm
themselves in order to protect or expand their markets. For years we’ve
struggled with open-air drug markets, drive-by/drug-related killings, the police
in one city or another occasionally shooting up the wrong house in a drug
Americans wised up to the folly of alcohol prohibition, repealing the
Volstead Act in 1933 and putting a virtual end to that era’s drive-bys (picture
Al Calpone’s minions firing Thompsons from the back seat of a ‘29 Model A), drug
overdose deaths (think bad bathtub gin), property values shot to hell, entire
neighborhoods rundown if not abandoned altogether.
Replacing alcohol prohibition with a regulatory model worked. Not perfectly,
of course, but well enough that it drove the bootleggers out of business. And it
produced a formidable barrier between kids and products they ought not to be
taking. (When’s the last time you heard of a street drug dealer carding a
14-year-old?) Regulation and control of alcohol made our communities healthier,
our children safer.
Seattle and the state of Washington are poised to take a strong leadership
position in the campaign for sane and sensible drug laws. We’ve passed a medical
marijuana law, and Seattleites have made simple, adult marijuana possession
cases the lowest law enforcement priority in the city. University of Washington
researchers Katherine Beckett and Steve Herbert just last week issued a report that concluded that “penalizing doesn’t
reduce use of marijuana and lessening or removing penalties doesn’t increase
Think of the money we’d save if we focused our law enforcement resources on
people who drive under the influence of any drug, including alcohol. Or who
furnish drugs to kids. Or who, under the influence of booze or other drugs,
jealousy, insecurity or greed, steal a car, batter a spouse, abuse a child, rob
I doubt our new drug czar will favor an end to prohibition. For one thing, it
would put him out of a job. But perhaps, unlike former drug czar John Walters,
he’ll be willing to listen to the argument. Or debate its merits.
article was originally published by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer