The Honorable Whitman Knapp, the first United States District Court Judge to become a member of the LEAP Advisory Board, died June 14, 2004, at the age of 95. We shall miss his tireless efforts to fight against unjust laws such as those driving the war on drugs. Eleven years ago in a May 14, 1993 New York Times article, Judge Knapp was already saying,

“After 20 years on the bench I have concluded that federal drug laws are a disaster. It is time to get the government out of drug enforcement.”

Newsbrief: Federal Judge Whitman Knapp Dead at 95 — Exposed Police Corruption, Opposed Drug War Excess 6/18/04 

US Senior District Court Judge Whitman Knapp died Monday at age 95 in Manhattan, where he resided. While Knapp is most widely known for leading a two-year investigation into New York City police corruption in the early 1970s, he also made a mark as a jurist fed up with drug war excess by refusing to hear drug cases after 1993.

Appointed to head the Knapp Commission investigation in 1970, Knapp uncovered a pattern a corruption that tarnished not only the brass of the NYPD but the political career of the man who appointed him, Mayor John V. Lindsay (D). The scandals uncovered by the Knapp Commission were memorialized in popular culture through the movie “Serpico,” based on the NYPD detective who first blew the whistle.

After completing his work with the Knapp Commission, Knapp was appointed to a federal judgeship in the Southern District of New York by President Richard Nixon. In 1993, Judge Knapp broke publicly and dramatically with the war on drugs he had seen daily in his courtroom. Along with Judge Jack B. Weinstein of New York’s Eastern District, Knapp declared he would no longer preside over drug trials. In so doing Knapp and Weinstein declared they were protesting “failed drug policies” that emphasized arrests and harsh, inflexible sentences over prevention and drug treatment.

A year later, Judge Knapp would go even further, writing a New York Times op-ed piece strongly suggesting that decriminalization of drug use and possession could be the answer. Ever judicious, Knapp averred that he did not know if decriminalization was the right answer, but of one thing he was sure: “I have concluded that Federal drug laws are a disaster,” he wrote. “It is time to get the Government out of drug enforcement. As long as we indulged the fantasy that the problem could be solved by making America drug free, it was appropriate that the Government assume the burden. But that ambition has been shown to be absurd.”

While Knapp’s public pronouncements on drug policy were increasingly scarce after the mid-1990s, a 1999 interview on WNBC-TV found that his views had remained essentially unchanged. When asked if he thought decriminalization was still the path to follow, he said, “I used to be sure that decriminalizing would cure the ills, but I am not sure of that. I don’t know exactly what should be done. I know that what’s being done now is wrong. The statutes on drug offenses are ridiculous.”

In that interview, Judge Knapp was clear on where the blame should lie: “The culprit was the Congress. The government itself, and the ridiculous laws the politicians have spewed because it’s great to be considered tough on drugs.”

Dethrone the Drug Czar

by Whitman Knapp

This is from the Sunday, May 9, 1993, New York Times OP-ED page.

Whitman Knapp is a Senior United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York.

The nation was fortunate in President Clinton’s selection of Lee Brown as Director of the Office of National Drug Control.

Having been police commissioner in Atlanta, Houston and New York, Mr. Brown has been in key positions to observe that a half-century of the Federal war against drugs has had a simple result: Each year, the Government has spent more on enforcing drug laws than it did the year before. Each year, more people have gone to jail for drug offenses.

Yet each year there have been more drugs on the streets.

Surely, Mr. Brown can have no interest in simply spending more money and filling more prisons. Indeed, he might well conclude that his mission is to find out how to eliminate his new job.

Milton Friedman, the Nobel laureate economist, has a simple explanation of the upward spiral with which Mr. Brown must contend. Law enforcement temporarily reduces the drug supply and thus causes prices to rise. Higher prices draw new sources of supply and even new drugs into the market, resulting in more drugs on the street. The increased availability of drugs creates more addicts. The Government reacts with more vigorous enforcement, and the cycle starts anew.

Mr. Friedman and those who share his views propose a straightforward way out of this discouraging spiral: Decriminalize drugs, thus eliminating the pressure on supply that creates an ever-bigger market.

This, they contend, will reduce demand and reverse the cycle, much as a similar approach has cut into alcohol addiction.

I do not claim competence to evaluate this theory. But after 20 years on the bench, I have concluded that Federal drug laws are a disaster. It is time to get the Government out of drug enforcement. As long as we indulged the fantasy that the problem could be solved by making America drug free, it was appropriate that the Government assume the burden. But that ambition has been shown to be absurd.

Attorney General Janet Reno’s statement on Friday that she hopes to refocus the drug war on treatment show’s admirable determination that the drug problem is primarily a local issue, more properly the concern and responsibility of state and city governments.

If the possession or distribution of drugs were no longer a Federal crime, other levels of government would face the choice of enforcement or trying out Milton Friedman’s theory and decriminalizing. If they chose the second route, they would have to decide whether to license drug retailers, distribute drugs through state agencies or perhaps allow drugs only to be purchased with a physician’s prescription.

The variety, complexity and importance of these questions make it exceedingly clear that the Federal Government has no business being involved in any of them. What might be a hopeful solution in New York could be a disaster in Idaho, and only state legislatures and city governments, not Congress, can pass laws tailored to local needs.

What did the nation do when it decided to rid itself of the catastrophes spawned by Prohibition? It adopted the 21st Amendment, which excluded the Government from any role in regulation of alcoholic beverages and strengthened the powers of the states to deal with such matters.

That is precisely what the Congress should do with respect to drugs. It should repeal all Federal laws that prohibit or regulate their distribution or use and devise methods for helping the states to exercise their respective powers in those areas.

But having created the problem by decades of ill-considered legislation, congress can’t just throw it back to the states without helping finance the efforts. That raises a host of complex problems, including apportionment of Federal monies among the states, restrictions on how the monies may be used, the ratio of Federal dollars for enforcement to those spent on treatment and the role of nongovernmental organizations that treat addicts.

Such problems will not lend themselves to easy resolution. After all, Prohibition was allowed to wreak havoc for a mere 14 years, while the drug warriors have been at it for many decades. Under Lee Brown’s leadership, we may hope for a return to sanity.