Drugs of choice

Why some former cops argue that all drugs
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steve@sfbg.com

San Francisco is home to a wide variety of drug users, from the hardcore smack addicts on Sixth Street to the club kids high on ecstasy or crystal meth to the yuppies snorting lines off their downtown desks or getting drunk after work to the cornucopia of people across all classes smoking joints in Golden Gate Park or in their living rooms on weekends.

Drug law reformers come in similarly wide varieties, but most have a strong preference for first legalizing the most popular and least harmful of illegal drugs: marijuana. That's how medical marijuana got its quasi-legal status in the city, and why San Francisco hosted the huge state conference of California National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws conference that began on 4/20.

But while hundreds of CA-NORML attendees were eating lunch and waiting to be entertained by iconic marijuana advocate Tommy Chong (a session that was cut short by a hotel manager because too many attendees were smoking pot; go to "The Day after 4/20" at www.sfbg.com/entry.php?entry_id=392 for the complete story), across town another unlikely legalization proponent was speaking to a circle of about two dozen people gathered in the Mission Neighborhood Health Center.

Norm Stamper, the former Seattle police chief and a cop for 34 years, is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of current and former police officers advocating for the legalization and regulation of all drugs (go to www.leap.cc for more info). Although Stamper also spoke at some NORML conference events, he differs from that organization in at least one key respect.

"Tomorrow I'm going to say something that will piss off NORML," Stamper told the group in the Mission District April 21. Namely, Stamper argues that it is more important to legalize hard drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines than the more benign marijuana.

While NORML focuses on personal freedom and the fact that marijuana is less harmful than legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco, Stamper blames drug prohibition for the more serious public health and economic costs associated with harder drugs. In particular, prohibition hinders addiction treatment and quality control of drugs both of which can have deadly results.

"I do think drugs should be rigorously regulated and controlled," Stamper argued, noting that there are many different visions for the postprohibition world even within his own organization. Stamper prefers a model in which all drugs are legalized, production and distribution systems are tightly controlled by the government (as they are now with alcohol and tobacco), addiction issues are treated as medical problems, and crimes associated with such addictions such as theft or spousal abuse are treated harshly.

But he also said that he's open to other ideas and definitely shares the widely held view among drug-law reformers of all stripes that the $1 trillion "war on drugs," instigated in 1970 by then-president Richard Nixon, has been a colossal failure and an unnecessary waste of human and economic capital.