Former police chief says time to end war on drugs

Jun 13, 2011

In June of 1971, President Richard Nixon officially declared a "war on drugs."  Drug abuse, he said, was "public enemy No. 1."

Forty years later, few would call the war a success.  Even President Obama says we need to stop looking at our drug problem as a war. But, some former top cops say the President isn't doing enough to actually end the war.

Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper says he was once on the front lines of the war on drugs.  Now he’s with a group opposing it, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

LEAP says prohibiting drugs only serves to worsen addiction and violence.  The group, made up of former cops, prosecutors and judges  favors legalizing and regulating marijuana and other illegal drugs.

Stamper , speaking from an airplane seat on his way from Seattle to D.C. for a press conference, said he likes that President Obama has, in effect, declared the war on drugs over, but:

"The actual practice simply does not match the rhetoric.  We’re spending more money today on interdiction, namely arrest and incarceration, than we are on prevention, education and treatment.”

Stamper says that’s despite the nation’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, also a former Seattle Police Chief, saying he wants to focus more on treatment and less on incarceration.

Looking back at the evolution of the war on drugs, it's interesting to note that when Nixon first announced the war,  the emphasis seemed to be on education rather than incarceration.  As this 1969 CBS news report tells us,  Nixon favored reducing penalties for marijuana use. 

An NPR timeline of the war on drugs shows that it was during the Reagan administration that incarceration became the primary weapon in the war.  It was in 1986, for example, that Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act.  Among other things, it created mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses.


Paula Wissel's 2005 interview with Norm Stamper about his book "Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing."