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Originally published Friday, February 25, 2011 at 2:55 PM

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Guest columnist

Time for a real shift in U.S. drug policy

Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper is encouraged by the way President Obama talks about changing U.S. drug policy, including thinking more about drugs as a public-health problem. But Stamper is still waiting for the administration to treat substance abuse as a health problem, to end drug prohibition and the drug war.

Special to The Times

AS a retired police officer who worked for more than three decades to enforce our country's failed criminal-justice approach to drug policy, I was delighted to hear President Obama recently say, "We have to think more about drugs as a public-health problem."

The White House drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, who like me is a former Seattle police chief, followed up on his boss's comments, writing on Huffington Post, "We cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of a problem this complex."

Unfortunately, the Obama administration's drug-control budgets don't quite match the rhetoric. This president, to date, has maintained a Bush-era budget ratio that devotes twice as many resources to arrests and punishment as it does for treatment and prevention.

Despite the president's assertion that a more effective drug policy requires "shifting resources," he simply hasn't done it. And, realistically, it will be next to impossible to find the resources unless we end the so-called "war on drugs," stop arresting drug users and move toward some form of legalized regulation.

It is difficult to treat something as a medical problem when it is also a crime. In most states, people risk being arrested if they call 911 to report a drug overdose. And as the president points out, "It may take six months for you to get into a drug-treatment program. If you're trying to kick a habit and somebody says to you, 'come back in six months,' that's pretty discouraging."

Imagine how we could improve access to drug-treatment programs with the $77 billion in savings and new revenue Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates the legalization and taxation of drugs would create.

But our current drug policy is a nightmare even if we don't take budgetary resources into account.

Prohibition leads to widespread violence as drug gangs fight over turf to sell plants for fortunes. Gangs and cartels make an estimated $500 billion a year in drug sales, giving them power that can bring countries to the brink of collapse.

Think of Mexico, where more than 34,000 have been murdered in illegal drug-market clashes over the past four years, and where police officers face the real-world choice of "silver or lead" (in other words: take the bribe or be assassinated).

When I started in policing, a 1-ton seizure was front-page news. Today, it is routine. Law enforcement sweeps up dozens if not hundreds of people at a time for trafficking. But it does nothing more than create job openings for those willing to take risks for the chance at huge, tax-free profits.

Prohibition also fills our prisons with largely poor and minority drug offenders who, upon release, have great difficulty finding employment after serving long mandatory minimum sentences. It shouldn't be a surprise that many end up back in the situations that got them in trouble in the first place.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not asking you to feel sorry for drug dealers. This is a public-safety crisis that affects us all. Consider that in the U.S. nearly four of 10 murders, six of 10 rapes and nine of 10 burglaries go unsolved, thanks in large part to our policies that force police to chase drugs.

Thankfully, the Obama administration appears to have begun to realize that prohibition is not working. Last month, in response to a question from one of my law-enforcement colleagues, the president called legalization "an entirely legitimate topic for debate," even though he personally remains opposed.

It's great to see Obama putting this topic on the table for discussion, especially since just two short years ago, drug czar Kerlikowske declared that legalization was in neither his nor the president's vocabulary.

While the administration's evolving rhetoric is welcome, what is needed is a real shifting of drug policy resources away from punishment and toward treatment.

A fundamental change in drug policy seems daunting, but we've done it before with the repeal of alcohol prohibition. Today, you no longer see gangs shooting each other over beer and liquor market share. And both the president and Kerlikowske have compared drug use to cigarettes, pointing to the success of public-education campaigns in reducing the number of smokers.

But have they forgotten that we have not sent one person to jail for smoking Marlboros? If we can successfully manage alcohol and tobacco under a public-health model, we can do the same for all other drugs.

Our country and the rest of the world would be a much safer, healthier place if the president and his drug czar would only match their actions to their words, if they would actually treat substance abuse as a health problem, and if they would work to end drug prohibition and the drug war.

Norm Stamper, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (, was a police officer for 34 years, serving as Seattle's chief of police from 1994-2000. He is the author of "Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Exposé of the Dark Side of American Policing."

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