Confessions of a Drug Warrior

Stephen Downing

I used marijuana once. My wife had severe neck pain and didn’t want to use opiates. Nothing else the doctors prescribed helped. I had heard many medical marijuana patients and caregivers talk about the healing and pain relief that came from marijuana use so we decided to give it a try.

My wife obtained the legally required letter from a physician and we walked over to the marijuana dispensary at 2nd and Claremont (pre Long Beach raids) that operated a few blocks from our home. My wife described her problem and the very knowledgeable woman behind the counter recommended a THC infused topical ointment.

So, when I say I used marijuana, it was because I used the marijuana-infused ointment to rub into my wife’s neck every night for a week. However, it didn’t work for her. The ultimate solution for her pain was neck surgery.

But, I had a nice surprise. At the end of the week every single liver spot on my 75-year-old hands had completely disappeared. That was two years ago and they still haven’t come back. As for my wife, four fused vertebrae cleared up the neck pain.

In addition to using marijuana during that one-week period I also brokered a marijuana deal about three months ago. I set the deal up for a guy I met at the Belmont Shore Rite Aide on 2nd Street about four years ago when the two of us were waiting to get prescriptions filled.

We got into the kind of conversation that both of us enjoyed so much we agreed to follow up the following Friday over coffee at the 2nd and Covina Starbucks. That conversation turned into two good friends meeting for coffee every Friday for the next 3-½ years.

The Friday conversations (and debates) were stimulating, especially when it came to discussions about drug prohibition – also known as the war on drugs. He was in favor of it. I was opposed.

As the commander of drug enforcement for the Los Angeles Police Department I had organized, implemented and executed the department’s enforcement, intelligence systems and multi-jurisdictional task force programs in response to President Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs in the early 1970s. Thus, I had learned from years of personal experience that we can’t arrest our way out of the problems of drug abuse and that the harms of the drug war itself were greater to humankind than the drugs we were trying to prohibit – a lesson that our amnesic country had learned once before during the 13 years of war we declared on alcohol between 1920 and 1933.

In our Friday conversations over coffee (another drug), I was pretty passionate about the subject of ending the drug war. I think that passion comes from a profound need for some kind of personal redemption because of the damage I inflicted upon the lives of so many people when I was a drug warrior.

Adding to that is what I’ve watched from retirement – a Tsunami of inhumane tough-on-crime laws enacted in a continuum of failed attempts to prove that with the right sized hammer our nation’s drug policies could work.

That hammer has become bigger and bigger over the past 45 years and nothing has been accomplished other than to pound the poor and people of color into a dark hole of hopelessness and produce what Norm Stamper, retired Seattle Chief of Police, describes as, “ the single most devastating, dysfunctional social policy since slavery.”

Our Friday coffee klatch came to a sudden stop about three months ago. My friend’s wife had a serious stroke and after several weeks of hospitalization he became her 24/7 caregiver. It wasn’t long after that I got the phone call that turned me into a drug dealer.

It was my coffee buddy. He said, “My wife is not eating. We’ve tried everything the doctors can come up with. Nothing is working. She’s going to starve to death.” Then he got to the bottom line for the call. “I remember one time at coffee you talked about marijuana improving the appetite.”

I said, “Yes, I have heard that. But, from what you’ve told me about your wife, my guess is that she’d rather starve to death then smoke a joint.”

He agreed, “You’re right. She’d never touch a marijuana cigarette much less light one up.”

I told him that I’d heard about marijuana edibles and that I knew this guy…

The “guy” is a medical marijuana (MMJ) expert, a victim of the Long Beach lottery piracy and the city’s follow-up war on dispensaries. He is also a very compassionate caregiver dedicated to the welfare of about 300 MMJ patients he’s helped for years – treating them for everything from chemo rehab to glaucoma to chronic pain.

I described the appetite problem and my MMJ connection told me about a THC infused chocolate product called Cheeba Chews.

“So, how do we score a Cheeba Chew for my friend to try out on his wife?” I asked. “Gimme his contact info,” he said. “I’ll take care of it.”

I give him the contact info and hung up, wondering if there was a tap on my phone. I’d just brokered a MMJ drug deal that was legal in many cities in California – but not in Long Beach. Here, I could have gone down for a felony.

Two weeks later I got another call from my friend. “The Cheba Chews are working,” he said. “I give her 1/5 of the chew 30 minutes before mealtime. She’s eating everything.”

I asked him if he told her what it was she was taking. He said, “Yeah. I told her the truth. She’s taking a herb.” He laughed and then he paused and said, “I can’t thank you enough. You saved my wife’s life.”

I didn’t save his wife’s life. A plant saved her life.

That plant has been used for medicinal and recreational purposes as far back as 12,000 years ago. Its first medicinal use dates to 4,000 B.C. in China, where the plant originated and was used as an anesthetic during surgery.

Records from 1,000 B.C. in India praise it for relaxation and reducing anxiety, like I use a glass of wine or a martini at the end of the day. By medieval times, the plant reached Europe. And German records indicate it was used for toothaches and for relieving pain during childbirth.

And then President Nixon came along – backed by the mercenary-based fear mongering propaganda known as “Reefer Madness.” He saw a way to destroy his enemies (Blacks, Mexicans and hippies) by declaring the war on drugs, enacting the Controlled Substances Act and putting marijuana into Schedule One right alongside heroin.

Since that time the federal government has put over $1 trillion into waging a war upon its own people. According to the Drug Policy Alliance over $51 billion is spent annually to fight the drug war in the United States, making us home to the world’s largest prison population.

According to the FBI, 700,000 people were arrested for marijuana law violations alone in 2014 – comprising almost half (45 percent) of all drug arrests in the U.S. That’s one marijuana arrest every 45 seconds!

On top of that, 88 percent of the arrests were for simple possession – and every one of those arrests created permanent criminal records easily found on the internet by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies and banks – arrests that resulted in loss of employment, financial aid, housing and child custody and months, sometimes years, behind bars.

Today, the prohibitionists in and out of government have finally been subordinated to the accumulated wisdom and education of the people. Polls now show that 58 percent of the people support legalization, regulation and control of marijuana.

That 58 percent get it because they have chosen to educate themselves rather than accept the fear-mongering nonsense the prohibitionists have been peddling – and continue to peddle.

Here in Long Beach our city council has failed to respond to the will of the people time and time again. So, now the people have worked successfully to place an initiative on the Long Beach ballot in November: Measure MM.

Measure MM is intended to catch Long Beach up with other California cities that already regulate and control medical marijuana and protect their MMJ patients through fair taxation and community safety measures while keeping businesses state compliant – and at the same time – demolishing a toxic and dangerous black market.

The only response to the people’s initiative from the Long Beach City Council was to spend another $500,000 of the taxpayer’s money and force Measure MM to the ballot box rather than adopt and put it into law. And then they rubbed it in even deeper by adding an additional regressive tax initiative they call Measure MA – in order to make another money grab on the backs of MMJ patients when Measure MM passes.

At the state level the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) is a people’s initiative that will legalize, regulate and control marijuana under state law, for use by adults 21 and older. The people have qualified AUMA for the November ballot as Proposition 64.

Together both Measure MM and Proposition 64 will fix a broken system, protect our children with the toughest-in-the-nation safeguards, purge a violent black market that costs billions in unpaid taxes, and reverse the unintended consequences of laws and a criminal justice system that is ruining lives.

When we pass both Measure MM and Proposition 64 in November, I will be free to walk to a dispensary on 2nd street and pick up another jar of THC ointment if the liver spots reappear and my MMJ connection will be able to deliver Cheeba Chews to my coffee buddy’s wife and keep her from starving to death without risking a felony bust, $20,000 bail and $5,000 worth of lawyers like the last time one of his employees was taken down making a small MMJ delivery in Long Beach.

And all of California will see our police officers returned to real police work with a focus on crimes against persons and property.

So, when the Nov. 8 General Election arrives let’s all support these two excellent marijuana initiatives – both grounded in science, compassion, health, human rights and safety – and make Long Beach a better place to live by voting:
YES on Measure MM (Medical Marijuana)
YES on Proposition 64 (AUMA)And a great big NO to a regressive tax that is: Measure MA (Must Avoid)

Stephen Downing is a resident of Long Beach and a retired LAPD deputy chief of police. For details on Measure MM and Proposition 64 email




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