Back to top

Ret. L.A. Deputy Chief Stephen Downing Calls for Police and Sheriffs to "Opt Out" of Drug War

Sam Sabzehzar 2011-10-20 0 comments

By Stephen Downing  |  Deputy Chief, LAPD (ret.)

Stephen Downing calls for Chiefs of Police throughout the state to "Opt Out" of the Controlled Substances Act as it relates to marijuana, and return the bride money sent for the drug war. (Photo credit:

The federal government has put up another $72 million in “war-on-drugs-grants” to redirect your police resources once again from true public safety duties in order to extend their failed war on drugs; this time with a savage assault on California’s 15 year old medical marijuana law.

Are you going to take the money and enforce federal law in lieu of upholding the will of the people of California or are you going to honor your sworn oath to uphold the laws of our sovereign state and send the money back?

August Vollmer, the police chief whose name is synonymous with the origins of professionalism in American policing would urge you to send it back.

In his work as president of the International Association of Chief’s of Police (IACP) and the Wickersham Commission Vollmer contributed to the successful campaign that led to the repeal of alcohol Prohibition. In an address to the IACP he stated “drug addiction is not a police problem; it never has and never can be solved by policemen, but by scientific and competently trained medical experts…”

Unfortunately Vollmer wasn’t around when Nixon decided to wage his war on drugs against the American people in 1971.

I was a police commander in South Central Los Angeles at the time and most of us believed Nixon’s propaganda; that it was a just war, that the “druggies” were evil and comprised a threat to our communities.

We saw our resources dedicated to public safety bought off by Department of Justice and White House grants so that we could leverage their political priorities at the expense of our communities.

Using their grant money and the lure of budget dollars though asset seizures they co-opted our public safety priorities and our role as public servants in deciding what was best for our communities.

Evidence based budgeting and responsible, prioritized policing went out the window in favor of the war on drugs. We morphed from public servant to drug warrior; blindly serving their interests and their agreements with those who benefited most by a continuation of their war on drugs.  We helped them invade and occupy our poorer communities.

Their money allowed us to build war machines to batter down doors, purchase sophisticated weapons, surveillance equipment and intelligence apparatus. We arrested and imprisoned thousands and then hundreds of thousands, and while most users were white, the majority we sent to prison were from our minority communities.

Most of us stood proudly at the show and tells hovering over tons of drugs, mountains of cash and hundreds of weapons as a compliant media snapped our pictures and hailed our progress toward winning Nixon’s war on drugs.

But, many of us came to see that we were not winning.

We saw the gangs grow, fueled by drug money, the cartels better armed, death squads trained by our own military unleashed across Mexico and our border states.

The bodies began to stack up, the gangs became more and more violent, the cartels outgunned us and many of our police officers, our public servants, were killed and maimed for life while the communities we were sworn to protect and serve huddled in their homes dodging bullets and watching their children die by gunfire, night after night after night.

For what?

That’s what I asked myself when we lost our department’s first officer to Nixon’s war.  For what?  And then another ended up in a wheel chair for life.  For what?

So that we could continue the futile effort to keep a recreational or medical cannabis user from getting what he or she wanted?  So we could continue failed programs keep an addict from getting a fix? So we could continue to rake in federal funds and shape our budgets around asset seizures rather than evidence based policing aimed at criminals who impose actual harm? For what?

I answered that question for myself and took a hard look at all of it.  I came away from that “look” convinced that we were creating more economic and physical harm for the people we served than we prevented by taking their autonomy away and subjecting them to punishments far harsher than would have resulted from drug abuse alone.

We destroyed generations of young people by labeling them as drug offenders, denying them education and job opportunities, we fueled the violence in our communities by allowing a black market to thrive, rather than providing the leadership to oppose Washington and the federal drug warriors.

We allowed our children access to dangerous drugs by serving as catalyst that allowed an army of pushers to thrive rather than regulating the market for adults and drying up the pushers and the hierarchy of gangsters and drug lords that fed them.

We threw soft-drug users into prisons awash in hard drugs. People entered jail with a diploma in marijuana and left jail with a doctorate in fraud, extortion and rape. We built more and more prisons while we fired more and more school teachers.

And in the end, today, sadly, our communities have lost respect for the rule of law.

The one bright light came from the people of California when they took the first step toward regulation.  They passed Prop 215 the medical marijuana law in 1996.  And after 15 years of regulated sales to those under doctors’ supervision, we find the sky has not fallen and society has not suffered.

In fact, not only has cannabis been more fully researched as a medicine, but crime has decreased in the areas that have allowed medical marijuana dispensaries, legal job opportunities have increased dramatically and tax dollars have gone into our treasuries.

This experience of the advantages of regulation of cannabis sales in California, though not perfect, has mirrored the experience in Holland, where drug policy experts have concluded that closing down safe, regulated, supervised points of marijuana sales would shift to the streets and that young people would become dependent on the criminal underworld for the purchase of drugs.

And yet, regardless of the successes, on October 6, 2011 U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy delivered Obama’s declaration of war against the sovereignty of the people of California when she declared on his behalf that:  “Under United States law, a dispensary’s operations involving sales and distribution of marijuana are illegal and subject to criminal prosecution and civil enforcement actions.  Real and personal property involved in such operations are subject to seizure by and forfeiture to the United States…regardless of the purported purpose of the dispensary.” 

Obama’s weapons had already been fired. The IRS launched a devastating attack on tax-paying dispensaries by denying standard business expense deductions.

The Department of Treasury has brow beaten banks into closing accounts of medical marijuana collectives.

The ATF has warned firearms dealers not to sell firearms to medical marijuana users.

The DEA has blocked a nine-year old petition to reschedule marijuana for medical use, ignoring extensive scientific evidence of its medical efficacy.

NIDA has blocked proposed research on medical marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder for our veterans and – – in order to once again invade our communities with mass arrests, prosecutions and jailing of our citizens – – they have resorted to their tried and true strategy of buying you off – – this time with $72 million designed to divert 192 of your peace officers to drug warrior duty, once again, in order to carry out their assault on the sovereignty of the people of the State of California.

So, if you have taken that “hard look” as I did many years ago, you too have come to that fork in the road.

Down one path we can continue to attack and destroy the lives of harmless people – often sick and dying people – for exercising their free will…

…Or you can look to the words of August Vollmer, the father of professional policing in America, and return your share of the $72 million with a note explaining you would rather the money go to finding missing women and children – investigating crimes with victims.

You can also vocally and economically support efforts such as the Regulate Marijuana Like Wine Act of 2012.

Vollmer would tell us that we don’t have to be the stormtroopers following orders from the Obama administration and its dedicated horde of prohibitionists – we can use our time-honored option – our duty – to prioritize crime according to public sentiment and evidence based policing as well as our own growing awareness over the relative seriousness of the harms to justify putting our energies elsewhere.

With our help, society may one day awake from this nightmare called drug prohibition in the same way that August Vollmer helped bring America out of the nightmare called alcohol prohibition nearly 80 years ago. It’s never too late to start doing the right thing.



Stephen Downing, Deputy Chief, LAPD, (ret.)

Executive Board Member, LEAP ( Law Enforcement Against Prohibition)
Member and co-author: Regulate Marijuana Like Wine initiative