A former L.A. cop calls for legalizing drugs


Stephen Downing speaks fondly of his 20 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, saying he misses the camaraderie and the integrity of the people he worked with in a career that took him from street cop to deputy chief. Along the way, as commander of the Bureau of Investigations, he oversaw the Administrative Narcotics Division.

And so when we had lunch at a sidewalk cafe in Long Beach the other day, it was more than a little strange to hear this life-long Republican insist that for the sake of cops, and in the interest of logic and public safety, the United States ought to legalize drugs.

You might be tempted to ask yourself, OK, what’s this guy smoking?

But he’s never touched any illegal drugs, Downing insisted. Not one puff, and nary a snort.

The way he sees it, the war on drugs hasn’t reduced drug use and the violence that accompanies it; it’s made matters worse. Law enforcement and the drug lords have been in an arms race for more than 40 years, perpetuating their own existence in a never-ending escalation that has bloated prison budgets and robbed us of funding for education and basic human services. The killing fields hold the bodies of cops, dealers and innocent victims. And still, after incalculable costs in blood and money, neither the supply nor the demand has abated.

Downing sent me a note after reading my column two weeks ago, in which I questioned drug policy priorities and drew a connection between U.S. consumption and the 50,000 bodies piled up in Mexico’s drug wars.

“When I started, the show-and-tells for the media were a kilo or two, a couple of handguns and a few thousand dollars in cash,” Downing wrote, referring to the news conferences called by the LAPD to celebrate its busts. “Today it’s warehouses full of dope, pallets of cash and tens of thousands of war level weapons. That alone should tell us something about failed policy.”

When Downing talks about legalizing drugs, he means we should “legalize, regulate and control” illicit substances. But he isn’t referring only to marijuana, even though he finds it illogical that marijuana is illegal while alcohol and tobacco — proven killers — are perfectly legal. He’s talking about legalizing cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, Ecstasy, the whole underground kaleidoscope.

With all those drugs, Downing said, “prohibition is not the answer and it will never be the answer, because it does not and will not work.” About five years ago he was recruited by Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which advocates for drug policy reform that would treat addiction as more of a health issue and divert savings to better uses.

“We have bravely fought the war on drugs for more than 40 years — arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning at ever-increasing levels,” reads a statement on the group’s website. “We have spent well over a trillion dollars and made more than 39 million arrests of nonviolent drug users. Ask yourself this simple question: Has it worked? As most of us can answer from experience: No.”

Downing joined the LAPD in 1960 and moved quickly through the ranks, serving as commander of the juvenile division and then commander of special investigations, overseeing narcotics. He saw the beginnings of the Bloods and Crips, heard President Nixon’s declaration of war on drugs, and watched rivers of federal money flow to create increasingly militarized police departments.

“Even small departments have gotten all this equipment,” said Downing, who wrote and produced TV shows after leaving the LAPD and now lives in Long Beach. “I went to the Christmas parade last year, and they’ve got a big armored vehicle running down the street. At Christmas!”

Downing said that as a cop going after drug dealers, it gradually became clear to him that he might as well have been fighting the mythical Hydra — cut off one of the snake’s heads, and two more sprout.

“We had a police officer shot in crossfire on a drug raid, and he went into a wheelchair for life, and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this guy’s like this because he was trying to keep an addict from getting his heroin?’ We had another cop killed in a buy-bust.... He shot him in the face. And this weighs on you, and you ask, ‘What is the value of what we’re doing?’ ”

Since then, California’s prison population has exploded, gangs still control drug trade from inside and outside of prison, Mexican cartel violence has become all the more savage and law enforcement policy remains largely unchanged. Part of the reason, Downing suspects, is that law enforcers have gotten dependent on the asset seizures that are divvied up among various agencies and used to keep the whole thing humming along.

“There is not one metric that says this policy approach is working,” said Downing, who believes decriminalization would lower drug prices and profits and defang criminal enterprises. He noted that the leaders of several Latin American countries have begun calling for an exploration of legalization.

I asked UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, who teaches courses on drug policy, what he thought about all of this, and he sounded a more cautious note.

“If we legalized all drugs,” he said, “there’d be smaller illegal profits, less violence among dealers, safer drugs and fewer people behind bars.”

“We’d also have vastly more drug addiction and more crimes and accidents due to intoxication,” Kleiman added. “There’s no magic formula to end the drug problem. Details matter, and not all drugs are alike. I’d like to see cannabis made legally available for use by adults. I don’t want to extend that to cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine.”

OK, said Downing. Let’s start with pot, regulate and control it as we do the wine industry (which would be a vast improvement over the current hodgepodge of medical marijuana laws), study the results, and learn what we can from countries that are decriminalizing other drugs.

“The harm to society is too great,” he said, “to keep going as we are.”