Legalize Marijuana, Says Former San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara

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'We're doing far more damage with the war against marijuana than any good that could possibly be coming out of it,' says the chief
Ask former San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara when he began to support the notion of legalizing marijuana, and you don't get a short answer. It began half a century ago, when he was a rookie cop busting dope fiends in Harlem on a daily basis. It continued as he rose up the ranks, and was sent by the New York Police Department to earn advanced degrees in Harvard -- where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on "the history of criminalizing drugs and its impact on the police." And he served for 18 years as police chief at two major American cities, and knows better than most what it takes to prosecute a war on drugs.

Perhaps the shortest answer is that McNamara has felt this way for most of his lifetime. He wasn't in a position to say so before -- but he sure is now.

McNamara penned an editorial emphatically supporting legalizing pot -- and voting yes on Proposition 19 --appearing in yesterday's Chronicle. Today he told SF Weekly that the drug policies he was mandated to carry out as a police officer, commander, and chief for more than 35 years were not only unproductive -- they were counterproductive. "We're doing far more damage with the war against marijuana than any good that could possibly be coming out of it."

Recalling his days on the beat in Harlem, "We actually lost four to five patrol days handling the evidence and processing the prisoner and going through the court system and so on for every arrest," says McNamara, 75, a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution since 1991. "I was an officer, and that's what they wanted us to do. But all of us felt the same way about minor arrests for drugs. It was counterproductive in terms of [lowering] crime and even of drug-use itself."

By 1969, the NYPD had selected McNamara for advanced study at Harvard. When he returned, he was kept off the streets and made to do research regarding "the cost-effectiveness of the New York Police Department drug-enforcement strategy." He already knew that it was hardly economically viable to suck up days and days of patrol time for every narcotics arrest -- and, at that time, small-time drug busts comprised one-third of arrests. But precinct commanders justified the time and money invested by claiming that busting junkies kept burglars off the street for six months -- even if it didn't make a dent in drug-use.

"That's not what the law intends," notes McNamara. "But it's a pretty worthwhile strategy if it's true." So he crunched the numbers. And it wasn't true.

Charting burglary, malicious mischief, and a host of other crimes associated with drug-users, McNamara found that, even with a massive surge in NYPD drug arrests, those associated crimes were on the rise. "I gave my report to the police commissioner and they covered it up," he says with a wry chuckle. "Those arrests stripped the police from the streets of the city. It inundated the courts, and corrections. ... That's the point with the marijuana situation in California, and, in fact, nationally."

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As the chief of police in Kansas City and, from 1976 to 1991, San Jose, McNamara's views on marijuana legalization were well-established. But he was unable to make the Silicon Valley into Amsterdam West. "The difficulty for police and certainly for a police chief is you have to take an oath to enforce the law," says the chief, now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "In a democracy, the police are controlled by elected officials and you have an obligation to follow the law. ... I know that many police chiefs silently agree with me but are not in a position to say so publicly."

Marijuana laws, the chief continues, criminalize 10 percent or more of the nation. An internal poll he conducted while at San Jose revealed that fully half of his officers had tried marijuana. "If we had turned them down on that basis, we'd have lost many fine police officers," he says. "Luckily they hadn't been busted, so they had a chance." But the arbitrariness of it all bothers him still.

If pot is legalized, McNamara won't celebrate with any reefer madness -- he says he's allergic to cigarette smoke and has never lit up a Marlboro, "let alone taking a hit on a bong."

And while the vast majority of San Franciscans are likely thrilled with the notion of legalized marijuana, our former mayor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, is one of the most emphatic opponents of Prop. 19. "I respect her, and we've worked together on a number of projects," says the chief. "But how does she reconcile this law-and-order approach to marijuana with the way she governed as mayor of San Francisco? No one has asked her that question. I hope they do."

Consider it asked, Madame Senator.

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