Former San Jose Police Chief Joe Mcnamara Fights A New Battle

PALO ALTO - Joe McNamara spent more than half his life as a cop. Like
his father, brother and several cousins, he walked the beat in New
York City almost from the time he graduated high school. The
profession was a family tradition he could no more escape than the
thick accent that still marks him as an Irish-American from the
Bronx, where he grew up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.

But McNamara, 65, retired nearly 10 years ago, his final law
enforcement stint being chief of police in San Jose. And when he left
that job he also left behind what he says is a deceit he carried with
him as long as he carried a badge: the war on drugs.

Now a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, McNamara has
become a leading spokesman for a movement that says the drug war has
been a costly failure that has increased crime, corrupted law
enforcement and ruined - or ended - the lives of millions of young

He says he's felt that way from his first days on the streets of
Harlem, where he learned that despite the NYPD's intensive efforts,
drug deals were taking place every day right under the noses of the
city's finest.

For every arrest they made, McNamara concluded, hundreds of other
heroin buys went undetected.

"We arrested everyone in sight, but it was clear nothing was getting
any better," he said the other day as we shared coffee at the
Stanford business school. "This crime isn't like robbery or murder
where someone is going to report it to the police. This is a
consensual transaction between people who value their privacy."

What started as a young cop's frustration became an intellectual
quest as McNamara's career progressed. He took time off in the 1960's
to study law and later earned a doctorate at Harvard's Kennedy School
of Government. His dissertation was on how drug issues were handled
before the 1914 federal law that criminalized drugs.

He returned to the New York police force, and later moved to Kansas
City and then San Jose. As a cop and law enforcement official he was
bound to uphold the law, and he did.

But he did so with regret. Because he always felt that it was wrong
for the government to arrest people for ingesting a chemical in the
privacy of their own home.

Now he quoted Thomas Jefferson on the rights of man and wonders about
the hypocrisy of politicians who promise limited government while
promoting the drug war.

"It always amazes me that conservatives are supposedly against big
government, but this is the biggest and most intrusive government
there is," he said.

It's not that McNamara thinks drug abuse is a good thing. He just
doesn't thing the laws against it are working. In fact, he argues,
they probably are making it worse. To make his point, he asks: When
was the last time you heard of a Budweiser dealer being killed in a
drive-by shooting?

The federal government has spent well over $100 billion on the drug
war in the past decade, and two years ago, he says, more than a
million Americans were arrested on drug charges. Yet drug use has
remained fairly constant.

Countless cops, meanwhile, have been corrupted by the influence of
huge amounts of money associated with the narcotics trade.

The mounting drug arrests, he says, are like the body counts in the
Vietnam War: meaningless numbers in an effort doomed to fail. And
like Vietnam, the drug war will end not because the government wants
it to but because the people won't allow it to go on forever.

As evidence, he cites California's recent passage of Proposition 215,
which legalized marijuana use for medicinal purposes, and Proposition
36, which mandates treatment rather than jail for some drug
possession crimes.

"These initiatives are very significant," McNamara said. "They're
showing that the old easy slogans - that drugs are evil and drug
users are evil people - are not being bought by the voters."

Yet Proposition 215 has been slow to take hold because of the state's
resistance and the federal government's hostility. And Proposition
36, which passed with more than 60 percent of the vote Nov. 7, has
caused an uproar among cops, who think it's bad policy, and drug
treatment professionals, who fear it may not work.

Gov. Gray Davis, who opposed Proposition 36, said last week he would
follow the will of the people, but he clearly wasn't happy about the

McNamara remains optimistic. The politicians, he predicts, will
eventually catch up with the people.

"Either we are going to become a military dictatorship or we are
going to get over this nonsense," he says. "In the long run this is a
policy that simply cannot survive the test of freedom."

Newshawk: John Black
Pubdate: Fri, 29 Dec 2000
Source: Orange County Register (CA)
Copyright: 2000 The Orange County Register
Address: P.O. Box 11626, Santa Ana, CA 92711
Fax: (714) 565-3657
Author: Dan Weintraub
Note: Mr. Weintraub is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.