Prohibition is an awful flop.We like it.It can't stop what it's meant to stop.We like it.It's left a trail of graft and slime,It don't prohibit worth a dime,It's filled our land with vice and crime.Nevertheless, we're for it.
That's how New York World columnist Franklin P. Adams in 1931 summed up the conclusions of the Wickersham Commission, appointed by President Herbert Hoover to divine the root causes of criminal activity nationwide.
Issued early that year, the commission's final report detailed widespread flouting of Prohibition laws and the deadly side effects of enforcing those laws. While expected to endorse repeal of Prohibition, the commission instead surprised many by suggesting that law enforcement step up its efforts to force compliance of the national booze ban.
Two years later, with the country mired in the Great Depression, Hoover's political career and Prohibition each met its swift demise.
Spin Cycle shares this tale of history because it appears that history is beginning to repeat itself with law enforcement being out of step with the changing social mores of the times when it comes to the debate over the use and regulation of medical marijuana.
Last week, Spin Cycle tried to engage San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne in a friendly e-mail conversation about the politically charged issue, but so far not a peep.
This is particularly disconcerting considering that, when he took over as chief in 2003 after a stint as San Jose's top cop, the mainstream press heralded him as a guy not averse to stepping bravely into controversy.
He did just that while San Jose's police chief in 2002, when he pulled police officers off a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force after it had raided a Santa Cruz medical-marijuana dispensary.
“I think the priorities are out of sync at the federal level,” Lansdowne told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. “It's unfair to put our officers in a position of deciding how they're going to enforce a law that's in conflict with local law.”
In 2004, he made similar overtures of non-cooperation when queried by San Diego City Council members.
Fast forward to last month, and it's fair to wonder just who that guy was who stood alongside District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis at a press conference with DEA and other federal law-enforcement officials to defend the Sept. 9 raids of 14 medical-marijuana collectives countywide.
Spin Cycle is no professional body-language reader, but the look on Lansdowne's face that day did not seem to be saying, “Happy to be here.”
And yet, there he was, jumping into the bizarreness by suggesting that he knew the raided collectives were illegal because “these were retail operators that gave discounts and T-shirts and hats.”
That kind of tortured logic doesn't surprise a real law-enforcement maverick like Norm Stamper, who spent 28 years as a cop in San Diego trying to change a well-entrenched militaristic culture from the inside before heading to Seattle in 1994 to become police chief.
Now retired and a well-regarded author, Stamper talked to Spin Cycle last week after a speaking appearance in San Francisco at the 38th annual conference of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He serves on advisory boards for both NORML and the pro-regulation organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
His topic? “Cannabis law reform's missing link: law enforcement.”
Even though hundreds of miles away, San Diego was very much on the minds of the overflow crowd who attended Stamper's talk. “Many in that audience were not at all happy with what's going on in San Diego,” he added.
From the county Board of Supervisors “suing their own voters, basically” in an unsuccessful attempt to overturn state medical-marijuana laws to the molasses-paced efforts to “create a sound regulatory model” for dispensaries leads Stamper to the not-surprising conclusion that “Northern California has it all over San Diego when it comes to support for medical marijuana.”
The reason comes down to uninformed leadership. “Organized opposition to medical marijuana,” he said, “is not in any way based on the science or, for that matter, on reason or compassion.”
Stamper noted “striking” parallels between Prohibition of a bygone era and today's drug debate. “Major difference? It took us only 13 years to end the former” over “essentially identical” reasons: violence, overdose deaths on bad “bathtub gin,” public health and revenue.
“The government finally came to realize it was losing huge sums of money by prohibiting rather than regulating booze,” he said.
Although for decades a staunch opponent of the “War on Drugs” that he says has cost $1 trillion to prosecute since President Richard Nixon declared all-out war in 1971 but has resulted in “more harm than good,” it's been his experience in the last few years as a drug-policy-reform advocate that has Stamper puzzled by his law-enforcement brothers and sisters.
“When you're looking at a young, 24-year-old mother of three whose face is being eaten away by cancer, who has no appetite, cannot tolerate opioids for pain relief,” he explained, “you really develop an appreciation of the value of medical marijuana.
“It's just unconscionable, I think, for the state to stick its nose between doctor and patient.”
While Stamper's encouraged that the city of San Diego has established its Medical Marijuana Task Force to get the regulatory ball rolling, he has another suggestion: A “one- or two-day visit” to the extremely successful Harborside Health Center in Oakland (described by some as the “Whole Foods of dispensaries”) and to clinics in Berkeley “would satisfy even the most critical opponents of the business model.”
Still, that may not be enough to change the minds of the politically and economically motivated, Stamper warned. Elected prosecutors fear the “soft on crime” label while the prison industry is motivated financially to keep its jail cells filled with non-violent drug offenders.
“It's almost like they have learned their ignorance,” Stamper sighed, “and that's tragic. That really runs counter to the spirit of this country.”
In 1927, famed attorney and civil libertarian Clarence Darrow wrote in his book The Prohibition Mania: “The chief and unanswerable objection to prohibition is that it is a legislative lie and absurdity—in that it undertakes to forbid and punish as criminal habits and practices which neither science nor common sense regards as criminal, vicious or reprehensible.
“The lesson of history is plain—reaction begets revolution.”
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