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Conference probes 'pragmatic' alternatives to drug war

What to do when people can't talk openly about an important subject? Joe McNamara, the feisty ex-cop turned public intellectual, forces them to play their own roles.

Before C-SPAN cameras and an audience of 100 law enforcement officers, elected officials and health professionals involved in treating drug problems, McNamara badgered some prominent players in the nation's drug war on Thursday, Nov. 6. He asked them to explain how they would behave during a fictitious drug raid planned for a Monday morning in a fictitious American city. Perched with a microphone on a TV host's stool in Stauffer Auditorium, the former police chief of San Jose and Kansas City made up the scenario as he went, piling on details that made it difficult to duck some of the problems involved in fighting a drug epidemic with law enforcement. The discussion was part of a two-day Hoover Institution conference designed to elicit "pragmatic solutions to urban drug problems."

First on the spot was Bernard Parks, police chief of Los Angeles, who said he would first try to verify the anonymous tip received by police that drug dealers were holed up in a city housing project with a large quantity of drugs. If the tip held up to more scrutiny, Parks said he would have "no choice" but to seek a warrant authorizing a police raid, but he would try to make it as safe as possible by first evacuating the surrounding housing project. Such a raid is "inherently dangerous," he said, and could never be declared a success until after it ended without injury or loss of innocent people's lives.

McNamara then turned to Mayor Susan Hammer of San Jose, pressing her to say what she would do about Parks' plans for the fictitious raid in her city. Hammer said her job was to "support the chief," that she expected him to take precautions to minimize loss of life or injury, and that she might go on television after the raid to "reassure the public." Unlike Parks, she said she didn't expect that capturing the supply of drugs would impact street sales, but "I don't know how you don't do the raid and have any credibility in the community."

Next was district attorney Terence Hallinan of San Francisco, who said it was not his job to decide if a raid was too dangerous. He would not do anything to block it if police had sufficient probable cause.

Turning to Tommy Fulcher, a Silicon Valley community activist who formerly directed the local NAACP, McNamara asked if he would or could do anything to stop the raid. Fulcher said he very likely wouldn't know about it in advance and wouldn't want to because "if anything went wrong, the police would blame me." After the fact, he said, he would "second guess" the police, but he noted that many citizens in drug-infested urban neighborhoods want the police to do more to roust drug dealers.

There was Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union ("practically since the Lincoln administration," McNamara joked). McNamara tried to get him to say whether the ACLU would file a formal complaint about the raid. Glasser never really answered that question, but implied that if it was a success and the vast majority of the citizens in the endangered community approved of it, ACLU lawyers would be reluctant to help a complaining citizen file a lawsuit. He spoke of the difficulties his organization has protecting citizens' Fourth Amendment rights against search and seizure when so many of their fellow citizens approve of police trampling on the rights of suspected drug dealers or addicts.

Next was U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet of New York, whom McNamara asked to sign the warrant authorizing the police to make the "no-knock" raid. (Such search warrants are granted for drug raids because of the likelihood that a knock would prompt the drug dealers to dispose of the evidence down the toilet.) "I might not be back from my weekend yet," the judge quipped. Turning serious, he said he and most judges are concerned about the drug wars eroding Fourth Amendment rights to privacy, but they also normally "second guess" the police after the fact, rather than being cautious in authorizing "no-knock" searches.

Ron Rose, a defense lawyer McNamara described as "beloved among the many drug dealers he has gotten off," was even less convinced than Hammer that the raid would impact street sales because of the tremendous profits his clients earn from drugs. Even if their father, brother and uncle have landed in jail, he said, drug dealers always think they are smarter or have learned enough from their predecessors' mistakes to make the gain worth the risk. Hurricanes and other natural disasters do more to affect the street market for drugs than police, he said.

McNamara elicited agreement from panelists on one key point ­ they do not weigh the risks of the raid against the dangers of the particular drug involved. It didn't matter, they agreed, whether the illegal stash was Valium, marijuana or cocaine. It also didn't matter if the alleged drug dealers were juveniles or adults, panelists said. "The risk of violence associated with illegal drug sales by well-armed dealers is the factor" driving the raid, Parks said.

Yet all the military assault weapons that the suspected dealers possessed were legal, McNamara pointed out, to which Fulcher added that, from his experience, they were less deadly than the weapons that some law-abiding citizens would possess in the same neighborhood.


McNamara, a research fellow at Hoover, is among a core of strange bedfellows who for the last few years have been advocating an end to the drug war. Many of them say that the profits of an illegal drug industry are so enormous that there is no chance of success without legalizing drugs to remove the profits and to reduce the crime connected with prohibition. There are political liberals and conservatives in this camp, but opinion polls indicate they are still a minority of the American public.

With that in mind, several speakers, such as former Secretary of State George Shultz, a Hoover fellow and Stanford professor emeritus, and Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center, a New York-based think tank on drug issues, advocated retaining the legal prohibition but adopting new strategies of "harm reduction" ­ strategies that appear to be working in some other countries to both curb addiction and reduce drug-related violence.

Nobel economist and Hoover Fellow Milton Friedman, who first warned of the drug war's moral hazards in a 1972 Newsweek essay, however, was less reconciled to half-way measures, and Edwin Meese, a Hoover fellow and former attorney general, advocated continuing the law enforcement approach to drugs, although he said he opposed current policy that allows the Drug Enforcement Administration and local police to confiscate the property of people only accused of drug crimes.

Friedman listed "immoral consequences" that he said flowed from the basic moral flaw of the drug war: its refusal to acknowledge that human beings have "no right to prevent a fellow man from committing suicide by alcohol or drugs." Friedman was willing to concede a possible exception for children.

Among the immoralities flowing from the basic moral flaws, he said, are high levels of corruption generated by the use of informers; an eight-fold increase in the prison population since the federal drug war began under Nixon; racist enforcement leading to incarceration rates of black men that are higher than South Africa's under apartheid; disproportionate treatment of ethnic minorities and whites with drug problems; and the destruction of inner cities and "tens of thousands of murders" in foreign countries that are tied to the highly profitable export of drugs to the United States.

Jeff Tauber, a judge from Oakland, Calif., who is president of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, disputed Friedman's view that inner cities would be better off after decriminalizing drugs. Oakland needs more money for prevention and rehabilitation, Tauber said, but babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome and crack addictions would not decline in depressed neighborhoods simply from drugs being legal and cheaper. In a similar vein, Parks disputed Rose's contention that inner city youth are drawn into the drug trade for high profits. It is more typical for youth to earn $25 a day from drugs to supplement the family income than to earn large amounts for luxuries, he said.

Shultz suggested people move away from discussing legalization and prohibition and instead talk to each other about incremental "operational" changes that could be made, such as needle exchange programs or replacing the current policy of treating users as criminals with one that treats them as people with health problems. That could be combined, he suggested, with more consistent, harsh penalties for peddlers.

Nadelmann suggested to law enforcement officers in the audience that they support needle exchange programs while still continuing to enforce drug laws. "You in law enforcement are crucially important to the public and politicians, who look to you for leadership, guidance and political cover." He also urged citizens to press elected officials to define the goals of drug policies. Without criteria now, the de facto measure of success or failure, he said, has become "how many people broke the drug law last week, last month or last year." Success should be measured, he contended, by reductions in drug use and by reductions in the "death, disease, crime, suffering and taxpayer dollars associated with our drug prohibition."

Conference participants also heard from medical practitioners and researchers in the field of drug treatment. Dr. Peter Beilenson, director of public health for the city of Baltimore, went undercover, pretending he was an addict seeking treatment, in order to see the system from a different perspective. Even at his own clinic, he said, he was treated badly by medical professionals who, he contended, make it difficult for addicts to voluntarily seek treatment. Dr. Robert Newman, a professor at Yeshiva University and president of Greater Metropolitan Health Systems, called coerced treatment by the legal system a violation of medical ethics. There are five times as many volunteers for treatment as there are facilities to treat them, he said.

The conference included medical practitioners and elected officials, McNamara said, because several police officers who had attended a similar conference at Hoover several years ago suggested a broader set of public policy makers should be involved. "I think our panel discussion [of the fictitious drug raid] showed that normally there is not a lot of communication between various public officials involved in drug policy. They just go ahead without thinking, why are we doing this raid? What's the goal here?"

Not everyone was happy about media involvement at the two-day conference, however. "One police chief jumped me at lunch and said why is the media here," McNamara said after the conference. "He felt that police chiefs and mayors who disagree with the current policy couldn't be candid because the media might quote them. There is a kind of McCarthyism surrounding this topic."

Shultz agreed, telling conference participants that he was surprised when he was "denounced by the White House" eight years ago for saying he favored legalizing drugs to reduce profits. Politicians who agree with him privately do not yet feel they can say so publicly, he said, because it might hurt their re-election chances. "It's up to people like Milt and me and others to point up the realities, and then you will see a shift."


By Kathleen O'Toole

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