From Top Cop to Drug-Legalization Advocate

Seattle’s ex-police chief now fights to end the war on drugs.
Norm Stamper

Norm Stamper.

It’s not hard to explain why I morphed from drug warrior to drug policy reformer. For more than three decades, I watched the drug war destroy values that, as a cop, I swore to uphold. I observed unnecessary suffering, justice gone wrong, and widespread corruption within policing. I witnessed the physical deterioration of whole neighborhoods—streets, homes, and schools made less safe.

And I saw myself and fellow police officers cast as the “bad guys” in the enforcement of drug laws.

In the late 1960s, I worked alongside one of the most dangerous cops I would ever meet. He didn’t beat people, didn’t even call them names. In fact, he was one of the most soft-spoken, decent cops you’d ever want to encounter. Unless he thought you were holding.

In which case he would find—or invent—cause to rip your car apart, invade your pants pockets or purse, or storm your dorm in quest of a leaf, stem, or seed that would justify a drug bust. 

I also recall vividly a moment in 1988 when I responded to a drug raid gone bad. A 56-year-old civilian navy instructor, deeply opposed to drug use, made the mistake of opening his door with a TV remote in hand. When I got there, the body was just being bagged. His family would never understand. The cop who shot him would never be the same.

Heart-wrenching stories are inevitable in a nation that has chosen prohibition as its model for drug policy, a nation that has criminalized a disease—drug addiction.

And some 35 years ago, my friend, Connie, a beautiful, slender woman, was dying. My wife, Patricia, and I drove her to dialysis three times a week. We took her to restaurants and movies (where, because of her illness, we sat in the front row so she could distinguish between Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men).

As she grew thinner and weaker, Connie stopped venturing out of her dark, stuffy apartment. One hot summer afternoon, she took Patricia’s advice: She donned jeans and a halter top and left the apartment for the 7-Eleven a block and a half away. As she gave the clerk a 5-dollar bill for the iced tea she’d taken from the cooler, a hand violently seized her bird-like wrist. A voice demanded, “And what’s this?” Connie had not seen the uniformed cop standing behind her.

Terrified, shaking, and humiliated, our friend explained her medical condition and the reason for the tracks on her arm. The cop left in a huff, no apology. Connie would never again go out in public by herself. Three months later, she died alone at the age of 32.

Heart-wrenching stories are inevitable in a nation that has chosen prohibition as its model for drug policy, a nation that has criminalized a disease—drug addiction.

A child's drawing of the war on drugs, photo courtesy Sanho Tree
A Peaceful End to the War on Drugs?
The international war on drugs isn't stopping drug use or trafficking—but it is ruining lives.
Drug policy expert Sanho Tree on what we can do differently.

Over the past 40 years, we’ve spent a trillion dollars prosecuting the drug war. We’ve jailed tens of millions of Americans for nonviolent offenses, ruined countless young lives, turned neighborhoods into armed battlegrounds, done major damage to the Bill of Rights, destabilized the political and economic policies of foreign countries, and tacitly granted commercial and regulatory monopolies to traffickers from Afghanistan to Jamaica, L.A. to New York. U.S. drug policy is the proximate cause of 37,000 deaths in Mexico alone since 2006.

Someday we’ll wise up. The only true solution to the horrific financial and human costs of the drug war is to end it—to legalize and regulate drugs.

According to Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, drug legalization would save $77 billion a year. It would free up close to half the nation’s prison cells, reserving them for violent offenders. We would be able to invest substantially more time, money, and imagination in prevention, education, and drug treatment. And, we would make our communities much safer and healthier.


  • More stories of life beyond bars.

  • The American problem with mass incarceration is less about crime than it is about how—and who—we lock up.


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