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Both sides of Prop. 19 battle deploy law enforcement officials

Joseph D. McNamara, a retired San Jose police chief, is the face of the 'yes' campaign. But most local, state and federal crime fighters oppose it.

November 01, 2010|By John Hoeffel, Los Angeles Times

When he signed the ballot argument for Proposition 19, Joseph D. McNamara, a retired San Jose police chief, didn't really know what he was getting himself into. Now, as the campaign hurtles toward election day, McNamara has become the public face of the initiative that would legalize marijuana.

"Let's be honest," the unsmiling ex-cop, wearing a neatly knotted tie, a dark suit coat and an American flag lapel pin, intones in a television ad. "The war against marijuana has failed."

McNamara, whose stern visage also appears in newspaper ads, urges voters to join him and many others in law enforcement. The opposition campaign, however, has lined up every California sheriff except San Francisco's, more than three dozen police chiefs, most district attorneys and every state law enforcement organization that took a position. Proposition 19 has endorsements from 28 law enforcement veterans in California.

On television, in news conferences, at forums and in phone calls, both sides have turned to law enforcement to pitch their arguments to undecided voters who, skeptical of the war on drugs, wonder if the initiative might be a better way.

The opposition campaign has deployed police officers and prosecutors to warn that the initiative would mean more children trying pot and more stoned drivers. Kim Raney, Covina's police chief for the last 10 years, became one of the most prominent opponents by default. When the issue went before the state's police chiefs, he joked, "Everybody took a giant step backwards."

Some of the former officers who support the initiative began to question drug laws while on duty but have become outspoken only in retirement. "It's not a particular campaign that I really wanted to get involved with," McNamara said. "I like cops, and I have been around them all my life."

Proposition 19 would eliminate penalties for adults 21 and older who possess up to an ounce of pot or who grow the plants in plots of up to 25 square feet for personal use. The initiative also takes a step toward legalization, allowing cities and counties to authorize commercial cultivation and retail sales.

McNamara's doubts came early, as a young New York City police officer in Harlem. "We arrested everyone in sight, and it was evident pretty soon that we weren't doing any good," he said.

Stephen Downing, a former deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, was monitoring a sting operation in 1973 when a cocaine dealer shot and killed an undercover officer. "You say to yourself, 'What is this about?' " he said. "That stirred in my gut for quite a long time."

The two former officers are among the most active of a hardcore group helping the Proposition 19 campaign. Downing drove from Palm Desert to attend an opposition news conference in Glendale on Friday, where Raney warned, "Don't be swayed by the small group of former police officials, some who have been retired more than 20 years and are no longer responsible for public safety in their communities."

On Raney's side are the U.S. drug czar, five former czars, nine former heads of the Drug Enforcement Administration reaching back to the Nixon administration, and the nation's top lawman, U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder, who threatened to enforce federal drug laws whatever happens in the election.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca is the co-chairman of the No on 19 campaign. He has vowed not to enforce the initiative, calling it "dead on arrival."

Baca has been in the Middle East for the last week. In his absence, his department invited the media Friday to view medical marijuana edibles that resemble candy and urged parents to check their children's Halloween treats. Steve Whitmore, a department spokesman, acknowledged that the warning just four days before the election created what he called a "perception challenge," but said, "That's just happenstance."

That many law enforcement officials oppose the measure does not surprise McNamara or Downing. These officers, they say, are invested in the drug war, which brings in money from the federal government and from assets seized from drug criminals. And, they say, no sworn officer could risk speaking out.

"If I stood up as an individual in the time I was at LAPD, I would have been rendered completely ineffective," Downing said.

They also say law enforcement is defending the status quo when voters are increasingly telling pollsters they support legalization. Raney said, "I think it's the best we have right now." He said the issue should be addressed nationally, not by turning California into a "social science lab."

Most of the state's police chiefs, including Charlie Beck of the Los Angeles Police Department, have not taken a position. Beck said he would discuss the initiative but would not tell Californians how to vote.

McNamara and Downing say the initiative would free up police to focus on serious crimes. "Who the hell am I protecting by booking a guy for a half-smoked marijuana butt in the ashtray?" Downing said.

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