The Fake Weed Fight

With more states debating whether marijuana should be legalized for medical use, and with many on the West Coast considering broader legalization measures, drug-policy reformers finally seem to be winning some arguments. Just not in Kansas and Missouri, where lawmakers are in a frenzy to outlaw a new pot-imposter drug dubbed "K2." If Gov. Mark Parkinson of Kansas signs off on the law, his state will be the first to prohibit the drug.

New drug bans run counter to the message of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a coalition of current and former criminal-justice professionals. The group's main goals are to educate the public about the failures of drug prohibition and to repair the damage that the drug war has done to people's perceptions of police. They believe all drugs should be legalized and regulated. The Prospect asked LEAP member and former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper a few questions about liberalizing drug policy, K2, and what fake pot suggests about a misguided war on drugs.

When people think about police chiefs, liberalization of drug policy is probably not the first thing that jumps to mind. So why are you against drug prohibition, and what prompted you to join LEAP?

My first epiphany was back when I was a rookie beat cop back in San Diego. I had arrested a 19-year-old, a young man who was in possession of marijuana, not a saleable amount, in his own home. But given the circumstances, I kicked in his door, I chased him to his toilet, I scooped up a handful of soggy seeds and stems and a few leaves. And I took him to jail.

On the way to jail, he's sitting in the backseat, and I'm thinking, "My God, I could be doing real police work." And it kind of hit me like a ton of bricks. I'm going to spend a couple hours, minimum, writing case reports, an arrest report, impounding the pot, and booking him into jail. . .

I could have been arresting a drunk driver. I could have been doing all kinds of things that would have actually contributed to public health and public safety, but instead, I was spending hours on a 19-year-old who was in possession of, you know, half a baggie of marijuana.

What's your take on Kansas and Missouri lawmakers' rush to ban K2, and is there a better approach that they could be taking?

Well there's a far better approach, and that, of course, is to legalize all drugs, tax them, regulate them, and control them. But let's assume for a moment that they take the lead in the country and they do, in fact, ban it. They will have to create or incorporate into their regulatory system a means by which that drug would be enforced. . .

Now, the question I have is: When are K3 and K7 going to appear somewhere in the country? And I'm not being facetious. There are any number of drugs -- designer drugs -- that could in fact crop up and no doubt will, given the ingenuity of Americans. So we'll be back at the drawing board.

Do you think the fact that marijuana is illegal has anything to do with K2's emergence, and if so, what connection do you see?

Oh, sure it does. If I happen to be a drug user, and my drug of choice is marijuana, and my use of marijuana causes me to become paranoid -- not in a clinical sense, necessarily, but it causes me to be frightened because I'm engaged in unlawful activity -- and along comes another substance that might produce the same effects, the chances that I'm going to try that substance are pretty high.

Is there a significant difference between legalizing marijuana and, say, heroin or methamphetamines?

The illicit-drug industry comes in at $400 billion a year. That kind of money guarantees violence and corruption -- the kind of violence that we see across Mexico and have seen for decades in our own country. That threatens to really get out of control as Mexican drug cartels set up operations in American cities, which they have now done in well over 230 U.S. cities, including Seattle.

So the rationale for ending prohibition on drugs is a stronger one, I would contend, for the harder drugs than it is for the so-called softer drugs.

Other than legalizing drugs, what other policies would you like to see enacted on drug use and drug addiction?

Kids clearly should not be taking any drugs. Their parents need a lot of help in the form of truth. The last thing you want to do is to lie to a 14-year-old, for example, about marijuana because that 14-year-old probably sees through the lie. Because [the lie is] told by somebody in a position of authority -- a police officer, a teacher, a parent -- [teenagers] don't believe the police officer, the teacher, the parent when they talk about crystal meth. So it's really important to be truthful to our kids.

So I'd say, number one, keeping drugs out of the hands of our kids. Number two -- and these are not in order of priority -- is embracing a public-health model and recognizing that those who abuse drugs or have a problem with drugs, including alcohol, need help. They do not need incarceration. I think it is unconscionable, fundamentally cruel, to put a sick person behind bars, but we do it all the time. And I think we need to recognize the effect on state, and local, and certainly national treasuries.

What is the result of this ghastly investment? Drugs more readily available, lower prices, higher potency. It's a failure. It's a breathtaking failure, and there are just too many of us that lack the courage or the will to really study the issue in a way that would help us all see what we have to gain by ending the drug war.