Drug War

Joseph McNamara, Drug Warrior Turned Conscientious Objector, RIP


Prop. 19 campaign

Joseph McNamara, who died on Friday at the age of 79, had been publicly criticizing the war on drugs since retiring from his last job in law enforcement, running the San Jose Police Department, more than two decades ago. When he began his second career as a drug-war dissident in 1991, Americans were overwhelmingly opposed to legalizing even marijuana, so it took guts for him to argue that violence is not an appropriate response to drug use, especially given his professional background. That background made McNamara an especially effective critic of prohibition, since he had witnessed its futility and pernicious consequences firsthand.

In a 2002 interview with Reason's Michael Lynch, McNamara explained that he had harbored doubts about the vain crusade to stop Americans from using certain arbitrarily chosen psychoactive substances since his days as a New York City beat cop in the 1950s. Those doubts solidified when he wrote the thesis for a Ph.D. in public administration from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "I wrote my dissertation in 1973 and predicted the escalation and failure of the drug war—and the vast corruption and violence that would follow," McNamara told Lynch. "I never published it because I wanted a police career and not an academic career." But after he retired in 1991 and became a fellow at the Hoover Institution, McNamara was increasingly outspoken on drug policy, serving as an adviser and speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and bringing a much-needed insider's perspective to discussions of prohibition's impact on policing. 

McNamara was especially incisive in explaining the relatively subtle ways in which prohibition corrupts police practices, as in this excerpt from the Reason interview:

Last year, state and local police made somewhere around 1.4 million drug arrests. Almost none of those arrests had search warrants. Sometimes the guy says, "Sure, officer, go ahead and open the trunk of my car. I have a kilo of cocaine back there but I don't want you to think I don't cooperate with the local police." Or the suspect conveniently leaves the dope on the desk or throws it at the feet of the police officer as he approaches. But often nothing like that happens.

The fact is that sometimes the officer reaches inside the suspect's pocket for the drugs and testifies that the suspect "dropped" it as the officer approached. It's so common that it's called "dropsy testimony." The lying is called "white perjury." Otherwise honest cops think it's legitimate to commit these illegal searches and to perjure themselves because they are fighting an evil. In New York it's called "testilying," and in Los Angeles it's called joining the "Liar's Club." It has lead some people to say LAPD stands for Los Angeles Perjury Department. It has undermined one of the most precious cornerstones of the whole criminal justice process: the integrity of the police officer on the witness stand.

McNamara was talking about the militarization of policing long before it became a subject of much discussion following the recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. "When you're telling cops that they're soldiers in a Drug War," he said at the International Conference on Drug Policy Reform in 1995, "you're destroying the whole concept of the citizen peace officer, a peace officer whose fundamental duty is to protect life and be a community servant." He elaborated on the theme in a 2006 Wall Street Journal essay:

Simply put, the police culture in our country has changed. An emphasis on "officer safety" and paramilitary training pervades today's policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn't shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed. Police in large cities formerly carried revolvers holding six .38-caliber rounds. Nowadays, police carry semi-automatic pistols with 16 high-caliber rounds, shotguns and military assault rifles, weapons once relegated to SWAT teams facing extraordinary circumstances. Concern about such firepower in densely populated areas hitting innocent citizens has given way to an attitude that the police are fighting a war against drugs and crime and must be heavily armed.

McNamara also highlighted the racist origins and racially disproportionate impact of drug prohibition, a theme that would later be taken up by critics across the political spectrum, including Michelle Alexander and Rand Paul. "The drug war is an assault on the African-American community," McNamara told Lynch in 2002. "The laws that we have are the last vestiges of Jim Crow."

For years McNamara, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year, was working on a book titled Gangster Cops: The Hidden Cost of America's War on Drugs. Given the insights he must have gleaned from 35 years as a cop and two decades as a scholar, I was eager to read it. It would have been a fitting coda to his brave work as drug-war veteran turned conscientious objector.

NEXT: Local Police Department Worried About Synthetic Drug Already Banned by the DEA

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. McNamara was especially incisive in explaining the relatively subtle ways in which prohibition corrupts police practices…

    Almost like there was some similar event in our history to use as a guide.

  2. So, he became a critic of the Drug War after retiring from fighting it? How convenient.

    1. Once he was done using the system, then he fought the system? Did he repudiate the pension he earned by waging the Drug War as blood money?

      1. Balko’s piece on him today suggests that he did introduce reforms where it was in his power, albeit not to the level libertarians would like to see. If a police chief can be one of the “good guys” it seems he qualified.

        McNamara led the San Jose Police Department for 15 years. There he resisted the aggressive, militaristic trends brought on by the drug war in the 1980s. He embraced community policing, and showed little tolerance for misconduct and excessive force by his officers. By the time McNamara retired in 1991, San Jose had surpassed San Francisco to become the most populous city in northern California. And for the last three years of McNamara’s tenure, San Jose had the lowest crime rate of any big city (cities with 400,000 or more people) in the United States. In 1990, the crime rate in San Jose was 60 percent of the crime rate in San Diego, half that of San Francisco, and a quarter of the rate in Los Angeles. McNamara pulled this off with one of the smallest per capita police departments in the United States.

        1. But it’s so much easier to judge him without knowing anything about him, other than the fact that he used to be a cop!

          Don’t make them read, Dances. It just makes their heads hurt.

  3. Wake us up when you can report on a drug warrior turned conscientious object who does not have the word Former sitting in front of his or her official title.

  4. I remember this McNamara. He didn’t have any more on-the-job integrity than the other one, and his post-career pension-collecting conversion doesn’t impress me any more either. It’s interesting that he claims to have scotched his Ph.D. thesis to become a cop; another indication of his integrity. Anyone who’d go all the way that far into a Ph.D. and bail to become a cop is just another control freak.

    1. He reversed a long-standing police procedure that allowed cops to shoot unarmed suspects in the back. That’s more integrity than the other one.

      He also had a very good track record in San Jose.

      Of course, this would require you to read something about him, instead of judging him in such sheer, boastful ignorance.

  5. “became a fellow at the Hoover Institution”

    Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hoover institution? That’s a conservative group, you mean NORML, right?

  6. It would’ve been nice if we could’ve given him a victory on Prop 19 to validate this second, more momentous, half of his life’s work. Instead, we got 47%. My lazy stoner buddies never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

  7. Way back when I spent a day at Stanford, courtesy of a vendor I did business with and admired in fact. There were a number of us customers treated to a round of golf at the outstanding Stanford golf course and to a couple of presentations at the Hoover Institute, including that of Joe McNamara who spoke eloquently and convincingly against the war on drugs. I have read his work whenever I came across it sever since. RIP

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.