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May-07-2009 13:37printcomments

Open Letter to the New 'Drug Czar' from Another Top Cop: End the Drug War

Norm Stamper of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, is Seattle's former Police Chief. He sent an open letter to Seattle's new chief of police upon his confirmation as the nation's new "Drug Czar".

R. Gil Kerlikowske
R. Gil Kerlikowske
Courtesy: Wikipedia

(SEATTLE) - R. Gil Kerlikowske is the current Chief of Police of the Seattle Police Department, and the nominee of President Barack Obama to serve as the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a position generally referred to as the United States "Drug Czar".

R. Gil Kerlikowske was confirmed to be the Director of National Drug Control Policy on May 7, 2009.

Norm Stamper of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, is Seattle's former Police Chief. He sent an open letter to Seattle's new chief of police upon his confirmation as the nation's new "Drug Czar" who succeeded John P. Walters who held the position under President George W. Bush.

Dear Gil:

Congratulations on your confirmation as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Bit of an irony, isn't it? Two Seattle police chiefs on opposite sides of the drug war? As "drug czar" (please retire that ill-begotten label), you are responsible for advising the president and vice president on drug control programs, and for coordinating drug policies among all federal agencies. I, on the other hand, as a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, am devoted to ending the drug war, along with the prohibition model on which it's based.

But how far apart are we, really?

During your tenure as police chief you either championed or tolerated sensible policies such as methadone treatment, clean needle exchanges, medical marijuana, and a Seattle voter initiative requiring you and the city attorney to make simple adult marijuana possession your lowest enforcement priority (lower, indeed, than jaywalking). You also continued the practice of assigning police officers to Hempfest, knowing your cops would make no arrests for possession of marijuana, thus ensuring a safe and peaceful event. These modest steps represent progress, and they position our former city as a leader in local reform.

But I'd be less than honest if I didn't point to some genuinely worrisome positions you've taken recently.

In responding to written interrogatories from Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee you claimed there is no scientific consensus supporting medicinal marijuana; announced your opposition to legalizing marijuana; and defended the classification of pot, along with heroin, PCP, and GHB, as a "Schedule 1" drug--which means, I guess, that you believe it is highly addictive and possessed of no medical value.

Sadly, these views put you in league with your ONDCP predecessor, John Walters--he of the magnificent obsession with "killer weed"--who during his tenure silenced science, lied habitually, and refused to debate those with opposing views.

How much of your stance on these issues falls into the category of confirmation politics? How much represents your true feelings? Either way, your early public comments are disconcerting, coming from an administration headed by a president who's proclaimed the drug war an "utter failure," and who has advocated more of a public health approach to drug control.

Still, you did stand up to the shriller apostles of the drug war.

You wrote, for example, that needle exchanges are "not a cause of significant public safety problems," that they are part of a "comprehensive approach for drug abuse prevention, treatment, and care, including efforts to reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases."

You share Obama and Biden's position that sentencing guidelines for crack vs. powder forms of cocaine are "wrong and should be eliminated."

And I loved your reply to Senator Grassley's question of whether marijuana is a gateway drug: "Often, marijuana is the first illicit drug that young people use. I support efforts to educate young people about the dangers of illicit drugs, including marijuana." In other words, Senator: No. Pot is not a "gateway" drug.

Likewise, your answer to the Iowa lawmaker's query about whether the medical marijuana case of Gonzales v. Raich was a proper decision. "...the Supreme Court's the current law of our land. As a result...I am duty bound to honor it and so I [will] until such time as the supreme law of our land on this subject changes." The "subject," simplified, refers to whether the federal government should trump the states on marijuana enforcement. Sounds like another "no" to me.

You oppose "mandatory minimums" which have resulted in millions of nonviolent drug offenders going to prison for very long stretches. "...I understand and respect the ability of states, under the longstanding principles of federalism," you wrote, "to make state policy decisions within the scope of their authority and jurisdiction." Sounds like you're fully on board with the president and Attorney General Holder in calling off the DEA raids on medical marijuana dispensaries. (Federalism. Smart invocation, Gil. Appeals to many Americans, including thoughtful conservatives of a "dual federalist" stripe.)

So, how open will you be to new ways of looking at old, disastrous drug policies? You claim to support "evidence-based," data-driven solutions. You have, in your own words, "long recognized that to be successful as a police chief you have to rely on and work collaboratively with...other governmental and non-governmental entities." You pledged to "re-establish valid working relationships with non-governmental entities and stakeholders."

Drug policy reformers, mushrooming in strength and number every day, are committed to sensible drug laws, Gil. We will support your every worthy incremental step on the road to rational government policies. Of course, some of us, like LEAP members, will not be content with anything less than an end to the drug war, and the replacement of prohibition with a regulatory model based on sound public health principles. But that shouldn't stop you from making a place for us at the table. We are, after all, stakeholders too.

Finally, as we begin this new era of drug policy debate, is it too much to ask that you vanquish the vocabulary of "war"? We all know that when Richard Nixon labeled drugs "public enemy number one" and vowed all-out war on them he was in truth declaring war on us, the citizenry of the United States--especially the young, the poor, and people of color.

In an April 20, 2009 proposal to end the drug war, the Drug Policy Alliance urged us to recognize that while "DPA's work is all about drugs on the surface, dig down a little deeper and one finds it's not really about drugs at all." It's about "much larger struggles in American and international society--over the extent and limits of individual freedom, what it means to be a free society, and how we deal with both phantom and real threats to health, life, and security."

You have been given what DPA calls a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to help us reclaim our freedom as Americans, and to live safer, healthier lives.

Please don't blow it, Gil.

Warm regards,

Norm Stamper was Gil Kerlikowske's immediate predecessor as Seattle's chief of police, having served from 1994-2000.

Norm Stamper, former Chief of Police of Seattle, is an advisory board member of He is the author of Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing. You can email Norm at Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) is an international nonprofit educational organization whose mission is to reduce the multitude of harmful consequences resulting from fighting the war on drugs and to lessen the incidence of death, disease, crime and addiction by ultimately ending drug prohibition. You can visit LEAP here,

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Texas Voter May 8, 2009 11:24 pm (Pacific time)

Man I love you guys for standing up and telling it like it is. Keep up the good work! I voted republican for 30 years until I could no longer align myself with a war mongering philosophy. This year, I voted for Mr. Obama hoping to see the change that his platform was based upon. To quote Abraham Lincoln "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

Responsible Adult May 7, 2009 10:51 pm (Pacific time)

And I'm so sick of the pot is a gateway drug thing. Alcohol is the ultimate gateway drug. Most people's first buzz is from their first beer. If they like the buzz, they want more. All my friends that smoke (and are successful adults) never got into any hard drugs. Just legalize it. Sure it will be exciting for the first 6 months, but then you'll find things will be the same. The same smokers will smoke probably the same amount, and the folks that dont' smoke....won't. Life will move on.

Daniel Johnson May 7, 2009 10:35 pm (Pacific time)

Re: the picture of R. Gil Kerlikowske. He certainly looks like an unhappy camper.

Daniel Johnson May 7, 2009 10:22 pm (Pacific time)

I'm reminded of the movie "Traffic" starring Michael Douglas who had been appointed as the Drug Czar. In his final speech, which he couldn't finish, and just walked away, he said that the drug war was a war against America's children. We have had an equivalent drug war here in Canada over the last thirty years or so, but only because the US initially enforced it. But the similarities end there. We have about one tenth the population of the US and the ten to one rule usually applies to most comparisons between the two countries. But not with the drug war. The US has overflowing prisons to hold drug "miscreants" whereas we hardly have any in comparison. Most Canadian cops who discover small amounts of marijuana on a person, just confiscate it, and send the people on their way. In comparison, American police seem to have developed their philosophy from the laughable, long discredited 1936 documentary "Reefer Madness".

Jim D. May 7, 2009 8:34 pm (Pacific time)

  Norm you almost put it all out there on the table but if our new Drug Czar acts like  the Ca. US Attys and ignores the so-called "New Policy" nothing will change. After living under the Bush admin for 8 yrs one would think we would be used to living under secret laws. Until AG Holder puts the "new policy" in writing as Judge Wu asked of him no one really knows how to live within the new law or policy. I was taught by a great US History Teacher that it is Unconstitutional in the USA to have any secret laws.
  Just yesterday the Bakersfield Sheriff and DEA raided another Co-op using their personal definition of a "new policy" no one has seen. We should be writing to Pres. Obama and Atty Gen. Holder and not some figurehead. They should reveal to the world what this "new policy" is and put it in writing so we are all working off the same set of rules not subject to the whims of some podunk Ford Victoria jockey in mirrored sunglasses.

Will S. May 7, 2009 6:10 pm (Pacific time)

WOW! That is a very well written letter, with very strong points from a former Seattle Chief of Police. The fact that the new head of ONDCP is from the state of WA is probably a good thing. Being from Cali and knowing how progressive thinking dominates here on the West Coast, I believe the new head will be open to other avenues other than total persecution and prosecution of drug users, cannabis dispensaries, cannabis patients, and legalization advocates.

Greenbud May 7, 2009 3:16 pm (Pacific time)

A cop with balls! LEAP rocks!

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