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Stephen Downing: From drug warrior to anti-prohibition activist

Forensic personnel prepare about 400kg of cocaine to be burnt in Tegucigalpa on May 11, 2012.
Forensic personnel prepare about 400kg of cocaine to be burnt in Tegucigalpa on May 11, 2012.

Retired Deputy Chief Stephen Downing spent 20 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, many of them heading up the Narcotics Division. That's where he was when President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971.

Downing said he remembers hosting media conferences in the early days of drug raids, when police would display their seizures: "two kilos, a few thousand dollars, a couple of handguns. In the past, that was a big show-and-tell for the press," Downing says. "Today it's warehouses full, it's piles of money, it's tens of thousands of war-level weapons."

The war on drugs, Downing says, hasn't worked.

"When we started, our objective was to reduce the flow of drugs into this country and to reduce addiction," Downing says. "We’ve done neither."

Now, Downing's a board member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group that wants the government to legalize and regulate drugs. He's also a member of the Caravan for Peace, led by Mexican activist Javier Sicilia, travelling across the country to draw attention to cartel violence in Mexico. 

KPCC's Rina Palta met up with Downing, who lives in Long Beach, when the Caravan arrived in Los Angeles. Here's a bit of what he had to say:

On gangs and drugs in the 1970's:

"We had two little tiny gangs emerging in South Central L.A. known as the Bloods and the Crips. Membership, about 100. We had barely heard of the cartels, they were somewhere in Latin America. The drug war fueled the expansion of drug gangs across the United States. Those two small gangs are now 33,000 gangs across the United States with a membership of 1.5 million. Last year, the DOJ said that we now have 1,000 American cities where the drug trafficking is controlled by cartels."

On going from drug warrior to activist:

 "I’ve had transitions. I was the guy who started the program for the LAPD. I took the federal money, I helped organize. I helped the DEA get started. But I was a police professional, and we all want to be successful at what we do in life. The policy was cut the head off the snake and kill the organization. Well, pretty soon I realized we weren’t working with snakes, we were working with starfish. Cut a starfish in half, you get two starfish. The drug money is so large that there’s always somebody to step in."

On talking about drugs with former police colleagues:

 "I talk to them all the time about it, and the interesting thing is many of the individuals I associate with in private, they will say, yes, it’s a wheel spinner, yes, police shouldn’t be doing this. But the money from the federal government, the policing for profit that’s taking place [with asset seizures], they’re not going to say it out loud in the context of their organization because there’s too much peer pressure. My son is a deputy chief in the LAPD today and he listens and he weighs these things. And friends are coming up to him and saying, 'You know, you’re dad’s right.' So they’re there."