Why a former big-city police chief says we should end marijuana prohibition

Marijuana is safer than alcohol                                    Share on: 

By Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper (Ret.)

When you hear someone touting marijuana as a safer recreational alternative to alcohol, I imagine the last person you expect it to come from is the former chief of police of a major U.S. city. Well, if you’re surprised, I guess we are off to a good start. You see, the goal of this handout is to encourage you (fan and foe alike) to reassess the way you think about marijuana.

I‘d like to give you an insider’s perspective on the question of marijuana versus alcohol. By “insider,” I refer to my decades of law enforcement experience, during which time I witnessed firsthand how these two substances affect consumers, their families, and public safety overall. As you can imagine, those of us who have served our communities as officers of the law have encountered alcohol and marijuana users on a frequent if not daily basis, and we know all too well how often one of these two substances  is associated with violent and aggressive behavior.

In all my years on the streets, it was an extremely rare occasion to have a night go by without an alcohol-related incident. More often than not, there were multiple alcohol-related calls during a shift. I became accustomed to the pattern (and the odor). If I was called to a part of town with a concentration of bars or to the local university, I could expect to be greeted by one or more drunks, flexing their “beer muscles,” either in the throes of a fight or looking to start one. Sadly, the same was often true when I received a domestic abuse call. More often than not, these conflicts – many having erupted into physical violence – were fueled by one or both participants having overindulged in alcohol.

In case you might be thinking my observations are unique, let me share the results of some informal research I have conducted on my own. Over the past four years, out of a general interest in this subject, I’ve been asking police officers throughout the U.S. and Canada two questions. First: “When's the last time you had to fight someone under the influence of marijuana?” (And by this I mean marijuana only, not pot plus a six-pack or fifth of tequila.) My colleagues pause, they reflect. Their eyes widen as they realize that in their five or fifteen or thirty years on the job they have never had to fight a marijuana user. I then ask, “When's the last time you had to fight a drunk?” They look at their watches. It’s telling that the booze question is answered in hours, not days or weeks.

The plain and simple truth is that alcohol fuels violent behavior and marijuana does not. Alcohol contributes to literally millions of acts of violence in the United States each year. It is a major contributing factor to crimes like domestic violence, sexual assault, and homicide. Marijuana use, on the other hand, is absent from both crime reports and the scientific literature. There is simply no causal link to be found.

As one who has been entrusted with maintaining the public’s safety, I strongly believe – and most people agree – that our laws should punish people who do harm to others. This is true whether we are talking about violent crimes like murder and assault or non-violent crimes like shoplifting or insider trading. It is also appropriate to punish other behavior that threatens public safety such as speeding or driving through red lights.  All of these laws are clearly designed to protect our citizens.

But by banning the use of marijuana and punishing individuals who merely possess the substance, it is difficult to see what harm we are trying to prevent. It bears repeating: From my own work and the experiences of other members of the law enforcement community, it is abundantly clear that marijuana is rarely, if ever, the cause of disruptive or violent behavior. In fact, I would go so far as to say that marijuana use often helps to tamp down tensions where they otherwise might exist.

That marijuana causes very little social harm is reason enough in a free society to legalize it for adults. But an even more persuasive reason is that by prohibiting marijuana we are steering people toward a substance that far too many already abuse, namely alcohol. Can marijuana be abused? Of course. But it is a much safer product for social and recreational use than alcohol. Where is the logic then in allowing adults to use alcohol but arresting them and branding them as criminals if they choose to use marijuana instead?

Let me be clear. The problem does not lie with law enforcement officials. Your police officers take an oath to uphold the law and cannot simply turn their backs when they see marijuana statutes violated. What we need are new laws. It is time we stop driving the American people to drink. Instead, we should simply and logically allow them to use a safer alternative, if that is what they prefer.

Norm Stamper is a 34-year veteran police officer. He retired as Seattle’s chief of police in 2000. He served 28 years in San Diego where he led  Mayor Pete Wilson’s Crime Control Commission.

Adapted from the foreword to Marijuana is Safer: So why are driving people to drink? (Chelsea Green, 2009). Copies of Marijuana Is Safer are available for just $10 at Amazon.com, or read it for free on-line at Scribd.com.