Retired Top Cops Slam Arguments Against Legalizing Pot
This fall, California will consider repealing marijuana prohibition by way of a voter-sponsored ballot initiative called Proposition 19. If passed, it would stand as a direct affront to federal law, representing the most significant change in a state’s drug policy since cannabis was first outlawed in 1937.
Though marijuana legalization is largely a liberal and progressive cause célèbre, it may be fair to say that the state’s elected Democrats aren’t exactly cuckoo for these coco-puffs.
Prominent California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein has declared her opposition to Prop. 19, signing a ballot argument against legalization put forward by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Sen. Barbara Boxer and Democrat gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown were quick to adopt Feinstein’s position, and the state’s Democratic party, while apparently torn on the issue, officially elected to stay neutral fearing their support could damage state-wide candidates.
In spite of Democratic opposition, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a drug policy reform group made up of former cops, judges and federal agents, seems to stand perhaps the best chance of swaying the state’s drug policy establishment. They’ve put forward a ballot argument in favor of Prop. 19, and three of their most prominent members from California law enforcement have signed it.
In an exclusive interview, the former police chief of San Jose and the former deputy police chief of Los Angeles County — both members of LEAP — took to task those favoring continued prohibition, insisting that both Sen. Feinstein and MADD level an “emotional, unreasoned” argument for keeping pot illegal.
Sen. Feinstein’s press office was contacted multiple times in seeking a response to these officers. Both times a returned call or e-mail was promised, but none were received after several days.
“I know Dianne Feinestein quite well from when she was mayor of San Francisco,” said former San Jose Chief of Police Joseph McNamara. “I’m kind of stunned by her stance on this. It’s contrary to everything she talked about as a politician in San Francisco.”
By contrast, post-Feinestein San Francisco was host this year to the first-ever International Cannabis and Hemp Expo, and the Hemp Industry Association is planning to hold its 17th annual meeting there in November. Last month also saw San Francisco hosting the first ever Medical Cannabis Cup: a competition among growers, to see who produces the best pot.
It’s pretty clear that the city, by and large, has taken a position of favoring Prop. 19.
“[Feinestein's] position [as San Francisco's mayor] certainly wasn’t this law and order nonsense on stamping out marijuana,” McNamara said.
In a ballot argument against legalization (PDF link), Feinstein and MADD argue that Prop. 19 could cost California school districts $9.4 billion in federal funding, as they would no longer be able to meet federal drug-free standards. They also fret that colleges and universities in California will lose out on federal grants, which is a very real threat that LEAP did not address.
The main thrust of their argument is that due to the ballot initiative’s wording, officers or other public officials would not be able to take preemptive action against stoned drivers: they’d have to wait for accidents to happen. Much of the argument focuses on school bus drivers, and how they could be permitted to ingest marijuana and transport children, leaving the hands of authority bound until someone got hurt.
“Their argument is specious and I don’t think it’s based on any emperical evidence,” contended Steven Downing, the former Los Angeles County deputy police chief. “It’s kinda like, we make things up in order to pass laws. Well, come up with the facts.”
He and McNamara insist there is no evidence to support the assumption that officers or public officials could not enforce laws against driving while intoxicated. They argue that Prop. 19 has nothing to do with laws requiring sobriety while driving, and that it’s impossible to say, as MADD does, that legalization would turn California’s highways into a nightmare.
Similarly, though a recent study by the Rand Corporation predicted that usage is likely to go up because prices could plummet if cannabis is legalized, they too admit that estimating the number of stoned drivers is impossible.
“I think one of the strongest points to make is that there were no studies when these drugs were outlawed,” Downing said. “It was religious fervor and prejudice. Fear. We all know that’s how it all got started. That’s how alcohol prohibition got stated. It’s the same today for marijuana, which is kept illegal by emotional, unreasoned arguments.”
“Smoking may even decrease,” McNamara said. “Looking at the reaserch, 85% of high school students surveyed say it’s more difficult to get beer than marijuana. The reason for that is that beer is regulated. You need proof of identity and age to purchase it. That argument, that use will explode, is wrong. It may be exactly the opposite. It will be more difficult for people under-age to get cannabis.”
He adds that “marijuana is already in the mix,” as far as the sobriety of drivers is concerned. The former police chief, now a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, calls Feinstein and MADD’s argument on stoned drivers “speculation that doesn’t make any sense.”
Supporting McNamara’s position is the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, which reported in May that after a double-blind study of 85 drivers tested before and after smoking marijuana, “no differences [in motor control and response time] were found”.
“The laws today prohibit driving under the influence of drugs,” he said. “If they do that, they’re violating the law and can be punished under the present laws. By freeing law enforcement from making so many [marijuana] arrests, this would give them more resources to use against dangerous activities like driving under the influence.”
Downing’s argument was similar, and one of surprise at the lack of support from MADD. He said that fewer marijuana prisoners would mean more drunk drivers serving out their full sentence, thanks to reduced overcrowding in California’s jails.
“When you look at all of it, I think Prop. 19 offers an opportunity for rationality in an area that’s been so emotional,” McNamara said.
Prop. 19 will appear on California’s state-wide ballot this November. Should it pass, individual counties and municipalities would be able to opt in or out of the legalized system; those which opt in would be given additional tax and enforcement options, and residents would be allowed to transport up to one ounce and grow plants in a five-foot-by-five-foot area.
Even if the voters carry Prop. 19, it may not mean anything as it still conflicts with federal law. The Obama administration’s policy has been to not interfere with state-supported medical marijuana initiatives, but the president has said he is opposed to legalization. Whether or not the administration will take a hands-off approach to legalization in California is still an unanswered question.
A recent CBS poll found that while 42 percent of the state’s voters oppose legalization, 56 percent are in favor. Aligned with the majority is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which endorsed legalization because of prohibition’s inordinate impact on minority communities. The California Young Democrats also endorsed Prop. 19, along with former United States Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. The 200,000-member-strong United Food and Commercial Workers union, of the Western States Council, backs it as well.
LEAP’s full ballot argument in favor of Prop. 19 is available on their blog.