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Former Seattle police chief lends his support to legalize pot in Alaska

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 29, 2014

Despite years of advocating for marijuana legalization across the country, there's one thing former Seattle Chief of Police Norm Stamper hasn't done. The 34-year law enforcement veteran has never gone door-knocking for a political campaign.

"I'm a little scared," he joked Tuesday, moments before he and a handful of other proponents of Ballot Measure 2, an initiative seeking to legalize recreational marijuana in Alaska, headed out to canvass Alaskans in Anchorage's Inlet View neighborhood.

Knocking on doors throughout the neighborhood bordering scenic Westchester Lagoon and downtown Anchorage was the last stop for Stamper, who spent several days making the rounds in Anchorage, visiting with media and appearing on a variety of call-in talk shows. The shows ranged from serious talk radio with conservative host Michael Dukes on KBYR to shows geared toward a younger crowd, including rock station KWHL's "Bob and Mark Show" and KFAT's "Morning Chaos."

Stamper's appearances are an attempt to counter points made by opponents of the ballot initiative regarding law enforcement. Stamper, who served as Seattle police chief from 1994 to 2000, is an advocate for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a national nonprofit organization consisting of current and former law enforcement officials challenging what they call the "failures" of American drug policy.

Early in the year, the Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police came out against the Alaska measure. Last month, a group of 10 chiefs of police, from communities all across Alaska -- including Valdez, Unalaska and Anchorage -- reiterated their opposition to Ballot Measure 2. Their concerns stem from enforcement at the federal level, where it remains strictly illegal, as well as issues with staffing, training and enforcement associated with legalization.

The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska has fought to challenge those claims, arguing that regulating marijuana will give police more time to focus on policing serious violent crime. Stamper said in an interview Tuesday his advocacy for the issue comes from his disappointment in watching adults criminalized for engaging in "adult behavior, making adult choices, but who happen to be in violation of the law."

He said it was "tragic" to criminalize behavior he believes to be safer than alcohol and "ruin" lives through arrests.

"What do we have to show for it?" Stamper asked. "Marijuana is as accessible today as it's ever been."

‘Ticklish’ subject

Over the course of an hour, Stamper and Ballot Measure 2 co-sponsor Bill Parker knocked on about a dozen doors in the neighborhood. Reactions appeared mixed, with some in favor and others undecided but leaning one way or the other.

When Parker and Stamper approached the door of Bud Brown and asked him if he had decided how he was going to vote on marijuana legalization, Brown called the issue "ticklish."

Brown said he was "on the fence" about the issue, but leaning toward voting no.

Parker asked Brown if he knew much about marijuana, and Brown told him no. When Parker asked again if he "knew it was everywhere," Brown admitted that he did.

Parker said later that sort of reaction was common. He called it a lingering effect of the "war on marijuana."

"They think it's not something to talk about -- the 'ticklish' part," Parker said. "They say 'I know it's there, but I don't want to talk about it.'"

A few said they'd be supporting the measure, including one man who appeared to be in his mid-60s who told Stamper and Parker he'd been smoking marijuana for more than 40 years.

He was happy to talk about the measure with a reporter, but only anonymously.

"Caution is the name of the game," he said.

Stamper said that same kind of attitude is something he sees among law enforcement. In his years of fighting marijuana prohibition he said he's heard a lot of chiefs "whisper their support," but who are hesitant to advocate for legalization.

He believes there are two reasons for that. The first is that law enforcement wants to have a "united front," something that he believes is associated with years of growing up and working with marijuana laws in place.

"It's part of their identity," he said.

The other is that marijuana can often give police leverage to investigate other crimes.

"It becomes a bridge to other enforcement," he said. "It becomes a tool."

Alaska critics

Kalie Klaysmat, executive director of the Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police, expressed frustration over Stamper's visit. She said his experiences out of state made him ill-suited to comment on Alaska's legalization question. She also brought up concerns over Stamper's employment in Seattle, as well as other views he had in decriminalizing other drugs.

"It doesn't seem right that people from out of state, who would be considered carpetbaggers, with no experience enforcing laws in Alaska, are saying (marijuana legalization) is a good thing," she said Tuesday.

Both the Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police and the Alaska Peace Officers Association have publicly opposed Ballot Measure 2. Klaysmat said other officers would like to speak out against the measure, but most are prevented from comment due to "jurisdictional codes requiring them to stand silent on controversial issues."

Klaysmat noted the two police organizations represent more than 1,000 current and retired Alaska law enforcement officers. She said in an email that her organization is speaking loudly against Ballot Measure 2 in an effort to represent other officers whose voices are prohibited from being heard. Earlier this year, the organization polled local law enforcement to understand the potential for increased costs and found that costs to local jurisdictions for training, among other things, could run $6 million in the first year of legalization.

"We just don't know where these LEAP people are coming from," she said. "I have heard nothing good from law enforcement if legalization passes."

Stamper responded to the criticism by saying that as an American, he felt it is his "civic responsibility to share the research, to the share the evidence and to let my brothers and sisters in law enforcement understand this will benefit policing, especially over time."

"They don't like (marijuana laws), but they understand they're under a fairly sizeable peer pressure to toe the line," Stamper said. "I've chosen not to toe the line because that's just who I am as a person."

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