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Feature Stories

'Reefer Madness' Pot Laws Evolve

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 10
5/17/2013


By Steve Propes

In light of the May 6 ruling by the California Supreme Court that municipalities have the power to prohibit businesses like marijuana dispensaries that have been banned and raided by Long Beach police, LAPD Deputy Chief (Ret) Steve Downing, who headed up that department’s narcotics division during the War On Drugs era of the 1970s has a view some might consider unusual given his career.

Downing believes since California voters approved legalizing medical marijuana, Long Beach and other municipalities should “establish a finely regulated dispensary program.”
“I think when 216 passed in Long Beach with 67 percent of the people wanting dispensaries and you still have the issue, the city’s job is to accommodate the people.” However, Downing doesn’t stop there. “My interest is ending prohibition in all drugs.”

“The Supreme Court apparently looked for language in the original initiative that tied cities to legislation and since there was no language, they said there was a right to ban,” Downing continued. “The court said that law could be easily changed. There are two bills introduced in Sacramento doing just that, making it an alcohol model and some kind of health model. Cities can exempt themselves.”

But to Downing, this is just one step to a policy change he considers essential. “We’re going to have to recognize drugs are part of this society,” he said. “We have built the most secure prison system in the world, but we can’t keep drugs out of prisons. Thus, how can we keep drugs out of society? We have to control the drug trade instead of the cartels.” Downing equates the current drug enforcement policies to Prohibition. “During Prohibition, we had the biggest violence we’ve ever seen, when Prohibition was ended, Al Capone was out of business.”

Downing traces laws against marijuana to specific economic and political forces. “Henry Ford built his first auto out of hemp and he planned to run the first car on ethanol made from hemp.” That was when the war against marijuana began. “Rockefeller wanted engines run on petroleum; DuPont produced nylon and William Randolph Hearst owned ten million acres of pulp forest land which competed against hemp.”

In 1930, when it became clear that Prohibition was on its way out, U.S. Bureau Of Prohibition administrator Harry Anslinger became Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and began a relentless and successful “Reefer Madness” campaign through movies and the press.

According to Downing, narcotics enforcement is a growth industry, an important source of funding for municipalities and police. “The money is huge, the federal government in an effort of leveraging law enforcements issues grants and performs civil asset seizures. With all the seizures Long Beach makes, the city picks up a couple a million dollars a year. That’s policing for profit, in my view it has corrupted local police across the country; they seek assets to build up their budgets.”

Those who oppose legalization are legion. “Law enforcement, the California Narcotics Association, California Chiefs Of Police, big pharma, people in private and public business, unions, people are in the business of rehab under court order oppose it. Everybody who makes money off drug rehab oppose it. There is so much money involved. Since it started in ’72, as a country, we’ve spent $1.3 trillion on the war on drugs.

“Doing all this gun control debate about background checks, they ignore killings as a result of having 900,000 teenagers dealing drugs on streets. Another consequence is the 70,000 people killed in Mexico by the cartels.

“We’re spending $65,000 a year to send someone to jail. In 1980, the total prison population in California was 23,000. Before they started realignment, it was 174,000. Of that number, 25,000 are non-violent drug offenders at a cost of $1.52 billion a year.

Additionally, “when they outlawed marijuana, they outlawed all research in marijuana, other countries have found benefits in marijuana. Cheaper, more effective and healthier treatments through cannabis. No one has ever died from using marijuana. We have to view drug abuse as a health problem, drug use is what adults have to do.”

Downing foresees changes in the near future. “The public is way ahead of the politicians, 80 percent of the public thinks drug policy is a failure. President Obama has said drug abuse is a health problem. Now we’re getting push-back from Latin America, from letting DEA run their country and kill people, Mexico is saying we’re going to solve the problem.” Even so, “we’re not at the tipping point except for marijuana. Once it’s legalized, which should take five years, it will save billions of dollars and mean billions in taxes and once this is demonstrated in marijuana policy, it will change things.”

steve@longbeachcomber.com