A RETIRED American police chief will tell a Sydney audience tomorrow that the war on drugs has been a failure, and a disaster for police forces.
Norm Stamper retired as chief of police in Seattle in 2000, and is a spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a fast-growing US organisation of 13,000 current and former police officers, prison warders, prosecutors and judges.
He says that since Richard Nixon began the drug war in 1971, the most common reason for arresting young Americans has been for non-violent drug offences. Millions have been jailed, with often devastating effects on themselves and their families. Mr Stamper said this had driven a wedge between police and many otherwise law-abiding Americans.
"Police need a partnership with the community," he said. "If they're to get the information they need to fight crime, there needs to be a strong sense of trust. But with tens of millions of young Americans having been arrested for non-violent drug offences, there's a widespread sense the police are there to do things to people rather than for people.
"You may be working a non-drug-related murder and hoping that citizens will come forward with information about the shooter. But you can have doors slammed in your face because of an unhappy experience with the police over a drug arrest."
He said the war had encouraged bad behaviour by police, ranging from illegal searches to involvement in the drug trade, further undermining public trust in law enforcement.
America's conduct of the war overseas had harmed police there too. In Mexico it had led to massive corruption and thousands of killings by drug cartels. "Many of the victims are police officers, who are often tortured and beheaded," Mr Stamper said. "Essentially, honest police in Mexico have a choice: they can co-operate with the cartels or they can die. This is a direct result of the prohibition model and the American drug war."
Mr Stamper said he had an "epiphany" when he was a rookie cop in the late 1960s.
"I arrested a 19-year-old at his own home for possession of marijuana," he recalled, "and as I was taking him to jail in the back seat of my caged police car, it dawned on me that I could be doing real police work [instead of this]. I wasn't sure what harm this young man had caused anyone, including himself. I know that I had done him a good deal of harm, in arresting him and giving him a criminal record."
Mr Stamper, who thinks drugs should be decriminalised and regulated in the same way as alcohol, has written a book about his career called Breaking Rank. He believes that at no stage since 1971 has it even looked as if the war on drugs was being won.
"Every once in a while, someone in government has claimed progress," he said, "but they've been wrong. The immutable law of supply and demand will continue to work its magic for ever. Purity and prices will fluctuate, people's behaviour will fluctuate, but there has never been any point in the drug war where we've come close to winning. It is unwinnable, and it's immoral."
Norm Stamper will be speaking with Alex Wodak and Greg Barnes at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas tomorrow. The session ''Make All Drug Use Legal'' is at the Opera House Studio at 4pm. The Herald is the festival's media partner.
By Michael Duffy
October 3, 2009
The Sydney Morning Herald