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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Marijuana

Hard to rationalize pot prohibition

Norm Stamper’s told the story a lot: He was a rookie cop, working a “one-man car” in an affluent San Diego neighborhood, when he approached a home and smelled “burning vegetable matter.”

This was around 1966. Possession of marijuana – possession of even a seed or stem – was a felony. Stamper, a young cop eager to score the brownie points associated with narcotics busts, knocked on the door. No answer. He then kicked in the door and heard footsteps racing down the hall, where he found a 19-year-old man trying to flush his marijuana down the toilet. Stamper scooped out the soggy pot, placed the young man in handcuffs and led him from his parents’ house to the police car.

“As I got closer to the jail,” Stamper said, “I kept thinking, ‘My God, I could be out doing real police work.’ It was my aha moment. This kid was not hurting anybody.’ ”

Nearly 50 years later, a lot has changed regarding the country’s approach to marijuana, both medicinal and recreational. And a lot is still changing. But Stamper – a former Seattle police chief and 34-year cop – is still an exception: someone from the world of law enforcement who believes, or at least is willing to say, that our prohibition on pot is senseless.

In fact, Stamper says that a lot, and he’s been saying it for years – in speeches and essays, and even in a book. Now he’s part of a group, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, that’s supporting an initiative on the November ballot that would legalize, regulate and tax the sale of marijuana in Washington. He’s speaking around the state in support of Initiative 502; he’s also appearing in Spokane next week as part of a community panel on policing.

“I think it’s long past time we recognize marijuana is safer than alcohol, healthier than tobacco and does represent enormous revenue possibilities for the state,” he said.

That last point – money for the state’s bare cupboards – is no theoretical matter these days, though it’s hard to say exactly how much a taxed and regulated pot trade would bring in. The state’s Office of Financial Management estimated this week that it could mean $560 million to $606 million a year in taxes, depending how reefer mad we go. I-502 supporters have predicted a smaller boon, and the truth is, it’s all elaborate guesswork.

The OFM paper, as reported in the Seattle Times, describes what a state-run marijuana business might look like. It assumed 100 growers, supplying 300 stores, selling nearly 190,000 pounds of marijuana a year to more than 360,000 customers. It’s based on federal drug-use data.

Under I-502, the state would regulate stores and tax sales of one ounce of marijuana to people 21 and older. It would add maximum THC levels to drunken-driving laws.

The initiative is being sponsored by New Approach Washington, a coalition of health officials, attorneys, law enforcement officials and others, including travel writer Rick Steves and former Spokane Regional Health District director Kim Marie Thorburn.

As hard as it might be to envision that future imagined in the OFM report, it is equally hard to rationalize the country’s current approach to pot. It’s illegal, but the level of enforcement varies. Medical marijuana is legal in some states, but it’s a legality that is impractically in conflict with federal law. It’s so convoluted that Lewis Carroll might have come up with it while smoking opium.

And as attitudes toward pot have relaxed, we’re left with some glaring hypocrisies. Many of the people who run the government that still criminalizes pot have smoked it. Obama’s smoked it. Bush probably did, based on the way he avoided the question. Clinton at least pretended to. Presidential candidates routinely admit smoking it.

There’s so much winking and smiling about it on the one hand that it’s sometimes hard to remember that people still go to jail for possession, as Stamper points out.

It’s this hypocrisy, in part, that makes this such an issue for him, he said. How many of the people in positions of authority have a little pot-smoking in their own background – an experience that, had they been caught, might have changed the course of their life for no good reason?

“That galls me,” Stamper said. “It’s just galling to me that we can preside over this system of law and law enforcement criminalizing behavior that very prominent Americans participated in when they were younger.”

Stamper tells one more story from his early days as a cop. He and his wife were helping take care of a friend, a young woman sick with kidney disease. As she neared the end of her life – she died in her 30s – she started saying smoking marijuana was helping her appetite, allowing her to keep food down, making her feel better. Stamper told her to keep it away from him and wouldn’t help her get it.

But other than that, he supported her fully.

“She was not a criminal,” he said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.
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