Ex-LAPD Narcotics Chief Backs Legalization

By Tony O'Neill 06/18/12

Stephen Downing's anti-prohibition views spark lively debate in the LA Times.

Stephen Downing of LEAP Photo via

The LA Times ran a fascinating interview with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) spokesman Stephen Downing yesterday. Downing hardly fits the long-haired hippie stereotype of anti-prohibitionists. A life-long Republican, he spent 20 years with the LAPD and oversaw the Administrative Narcotics Division. Yet he's a firm believer in drug legalization. "Prohibition is not the answer and it will never be the answer,” he says,  “because it does not and will not work." After joining the LAPD in 1960, Downing worked his way up the ranks; according to the piece 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.” Downing recalls, "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?'" He makes a strong case, citing wasted dollars and lives. 

Also interviewed for the piece is UCLA professor and Fix contributor Mark Kleiman, who strikes a more cautious note: “If we legalized all drugs,” he says, “there’d be smaller illegal profits, less violence among dealers, safer drugs and fewer people behind bars.” He also argues, “We’d also have vastly more drug addiction and more crimes and accidents due to intoxication. 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.”

To which Downing responds: "OK, 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." A lively debate is continuing in the article's comments section. As one reader puts it, “Do people really believe that if you legalize drugs tomorrow millions of our citizens would be so stupid to become heroin addicts? If you believe this, we basically have had a miserable drug education campaign for the past 40 years.”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Tony O'Neill_0.jpg

Tony O'Neill, a regular contributor to The Fix, is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He also co-authored the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. You can follow Tony on Twitter.