Harpole, Embodiment Of State’s Cannabis Legalization Moral Dilemma, Quit

Richard Harpole, who as a Barstow city official became emblematic of the moral dilemma in California’s transition from a state that had criminalized for multiple generations the use of marijuana for any purpose to one that allowed its use first for medicinal and then abruptly for its intoxicative effect, is resigning from the city council.
Harpole was 25 years old and nearing the end of his hitch in the U.S. Army, serving in the capacity of a military policeman, when he was assigned to Fort Irwin as an investigator in 1983. It was at that time when he met his future wife, Donna, whom he married just about a year later. Shortly thereafter, he was discharged from the Army, and he hired on with the Barstow Police Department as a police officer.
Harpole spent just under 24 years with the Barstow Police Department, rising to the rank of lieutenant before retiring. A primary element of his assignment during his last decade-and-a-half with the police force was overseeing drug interdiction efforts.
Harpole was born in 1958, which put him in the middle of a generation that had a far more liberal attitude with regard to the use of  drugs than was the dominating ethos of previous generations or those who were yet in control of society’s governmental institutions including the courts, prosecutors’ offices and law enforcement agencies. As a law enforcement professional, Harpole functioned in lockstep with the continuing restrictions on cannabis and other drugs that remained in place throughout the 20th Century. At the same time, an underground traffic in marijuana had established itself throughout the United States that was every bit as pervasive and even more sophisticated in many respects than the one that facilitated the continued use of alcohol during the 13 years of prohibition from 1920 until 1933 during which mobsterism flourished. Officialdom considered those participating in the marijuana culture to be elements of the criminal underworld, encompassing anyone who used the drug and possessed it in relatively minute quantities for personal use, as well as those who sold it and those who transported it, grew it or imported it into the country from elsewhere. Those members of the subculture who were caught by law enforcement at whatever level of their involvement were subject, almost uniformly throughout the United States, including California, to increasingly harsh, sometimes brutal and even draconian efforts to suppress marijuana at a multitude of governmental levels, both state and federal. Barstow, a railroad town and a major transportation juncture into the Golden State, was a place where a considerable degree of the transportation of and trafficking in marijuana was ongoing. Harpole, as a member of the Barstow Police Department, was a functionary in the war on drugs and as such spent more than two decades in arresting and consigning those involved in the use and sale of marijuana to prosecution and conviction.
In 1996, at what was roughly the halfway point of Harpole’s career in law enforcement as a civilian, California’s voters provided the first indication of the sea change in attitude within the general population toward marijuana when Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act, passed statewide. It called for allowing marijuana to be dispensed to anyone who obtained a prescription for the drug from a licensed physician. While doctors for patients suffering from maladies and conditions in which the drug was of some remedy indeed wrote out prescriptions for what were ostensibly legitimate purposes, medical marijuana prescriptions very soon became a means by which that portion of the population seeking to be able to use cannabis recreationally without being subjected to arrest, prosecution and imprisonment indulged in its use. Simultaneously, the political establishment and reactionary elements utilized that portion of the act that allowed local governmental entities to regulate or outright ban dispensaries selling the product from locating within their jurisdictions to keep the vast majority of California’s cities and counties marijuana-free zones. Most cities and counties in the state had city councils or county governing boards composed of elected officials who yet considered marijuana to be anathema to a well-ordered society and community. Those officials, in league with zealous opponents of cannabis, used their dominant political authority to employ local law enforcement agencies to prevent marijuana purveyors from establishing a toehold in their communities. Routinely, medical marijuana distributors would set up dispensaries or clinics, in some cases straightforwardly or in others surreptitiously or through obtaining a business license by representing the operation as a health food store or spa, reap a considerable but short-lived profit that would in most cases offset the considerable start-up costs, and then be shut down by code enforcement or zone enforcement or law enforcement action. In due course, these entrepreneurs would move on to reinvent their operation at a different location in the same jurisdiction or perhaps another jurisdiction, repeating the process. In some cases, emboldened clinic operators would reinvest their profits in legal action challenging the efforts by local authorities to shut them down, occasionally succeeding by obtaining a usually temporary injunction to prevent enforcement action or their closure.
As marijuana remained under federal standards a Schedule 1 narcotic indistinguishable from heroin and cocaine, those yet determined to stem the rising marijuana tide in California endeavored to utilize authority from up the governmental evolutionary chain to reestablish that the revolutionary forces all about them were in fact nothing more than moral reprobates and criminals. Either at the request of local authorities or in some cases on their own initiative, federal authorities, i.e., the U.S. Attorney’s office working in conjunction with the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency, pursued federal criminal cases against some dispensary owners, operators or their landlords, particularly in those cases where the operators were deemed to be particularly defiant, asserted challenges to federal law, or were particularly persistent in their operations.
Simultaneously, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office and in some cases the offices of various city attorneys sought to keep up. Initially what had been fewer than a dozen individuals willing to brave the legitimate marijuana sales frontier – running a medical marijuana dispensary in local venues where municipal ordinances did not allow for them – could be corralled into court and in some cases jailed and in all cases fined substantially in an effort to convince them to desist.
In 2008, Harpole retired from the Barstow Police Department. He was at that point eligible to receive a pension, which he at once began to draw and which currently stands at $77,700 per year.
By 2009 the number of medical marijuana sales venues countywide had jumped to a score or more. By 2012 that number had zoomed to several hundred. The same year, Harpole was elected to the Barstow City Council.
At that point, the sheer volume of those willing to run the marijuana distribution restriction gauntlet had come to overwhelm local civil authorities. In July 2014, San Bernardino City Attorney Gary Saenz, taking stock of the number of pot shops sprouting up in the county’s largest city, offered his view that the cost and difficulty of shutting down dispensaries made enforcement of the city’s ban on the enterprises “futile.” Two years previously, Needles, lying at the extreme east end of the county on the shore of the Colorado River, the gateway to California, was the first of the county’s 24 cities to bow to the new social reality, clearing the way for five licensed marijuana dispensaries to operate in what, at 4,900 residents, is the county’s least populous city.
Three years later, the City of Adelanto, led by then-Mayor Rich Kerr, became the second city to seek to cash in on the marijuana bonanza, enacting an ordinance by which the city was at liberty to permit large-scale indoor nurseries cultivating medical marijuana to operate within the city’s industrial park.
Adelanto and Needles, however, were the dual exceptions in San Bernardino County, with the other 22 cities and the county maintaining the ban.
When 2016 dawned, the minority of social conservatives in San Bernardino County whose philosophy held that the only form of moral and legal intoxication was to be found in a bottle continued with their generations-long success in ensuring that those who felt differently would be effectively labeled as criminals. Before the year concluded, however, those marijuana prohibitionists would be overtaken by events. A statewide movement succeeded in achieving the passage, in the November general election, of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which legalized, for those of the age of majority in the Golden State, the possession and use of marijuana for its intoxicative effect, and legalized the cultivation and sale of the drug for the same purpose.
In one fell swoop the anti-marijuana crowd had been both discredited and ineffectualized as a driving social and legal force, at least in California.
There ensued what many observers consider to be the hypocritical adaptation of the new ethos that is breathtaking in scope. Officials who for years or decades and until quite recently insisted that pot smoking was not only illegal but a severe moral failing and that those who profited by the sale of the substance were parasites feeding upon society and trafficking in human misery such that they were deserving of decade-long prison sentences plunged headlong into a rush to get in on the ground floor of the new economy with marijuana at its core so their cities can cash in, like the drug dealers of just a few years ago, on the public’s appetite for inebriation.
Among those individuals was Richard Harpole.
Of note was that Harpole was not merely in years past a city official whose participation in the general societal disapprobation toward cannabis and marijuana was passive as forces about him militated against pot smokers and weed dealers, but was rather someone who was actively involved in the prohibition, whose bread was buttered by marijuana’s illegality, who had a financial stake in the enforcement of the law against marijuana because it kept him employed and provided him with a paycheck and put food on the table for him and his family.
In the aftermath of the passage of Proposition 64, Barstow, like most of the other cities in San Bernardino County fell into a state of paralysis, either deliberately or inadvertently stalling in the face of the change in the law. By early 2019, somewhat belatedly, the City of Barstow, perhaps prompted by citizens inquiring as to when the city was going to get around to updating its ordinances regarding both medical and recreational marijuana sales, undertook an effort to reconcile itself with reality. Curiously, however, at least initially the city did so very quietly, carrying out backroom discussions that were not done publicly.  Thus, unbeknownst to the public was that Harpole was not only participating in that effort, which many people considered to be ill-advised, but that he was actually the one leading it. An ad-hoc committee, chaired by Harpole, was looking at the ins and outs of allowing the cultivation, sales, distribution, and manufacturing of marijuana, cannabis or cannabis-based products in the city, pursuant to a licensing or permitting regime, one that would entail requirements that such operations meet a set of criteria, be licensed as businesses within the city and be subject to a tax specifically levied on the growers of marijuana or the manufacturers and purveyors of cannabis or cannabis-based products. Curiously, in spite of and perhaps even because of Harpole’s history as a crusader against marijuana, his council colleagues saw no difficulty, problem or conflict in his overseeing the framing of the policy which would provide for the eventual legalized commercialization of cannabis in the City of Barstow.
It was not until April of this year that Harpole himself let it be known publicly that he and the committee he headed had been working “for several months,” he said, on finalizing the city’s proposed marijuana policy. In May, it was revealed that the committee had tentatively worked out placing on the ballot during a special election this fall a measure that the city’s voters could approve, by a two-thirds vote, putting a taxing scheme in place for commercial, agricultural and industrial marijuana and cannabis-related businesses in Barstow. Ultimately, it turned out, a measure very similar or identical to the one Harpole and his committee brought forth is to be considered by the city’s voters, albeit not this year but rather as part of the March 3, 2020 California Primary Election.
This week, a little less than two months after the Barstow City Council consented to put the rules framed by Harpole and his committee relating to how the city will allow and profit by marijuana commercialization before the city’s voters, Harpole announced that he will be resigning from the city council shortly because he is leaving Barstow for Texas. The ostensible reason given for his departure is that he and his wife want to live more proximate to their daughter and their grandchildren.
On Monday, December 2, Harpole was not in attendance at the city council meeting. Whether Harpole remains a member of the council at present was not clear. His name was called during the roll call for the meeting. When a resident inquired as to Harpole’s status, no answer was provided by the city council.
For months, Harpole’s role in shaping the city’s cannabis policy has been an issue of some controversy.
Harpole specifically and pointedly came under fire for having spent all of his law enforcement career participating in throwing people in prison for their involvement with marijuana and disfiguring them with criminal records that in some fashion compromised or destroyed their reputations and ability to obtain employment. He then did a 180-degree flip in which he personally involved himself as a city official in arranging for the city to avail itself of revenues to be generated from the sale of marijuana, money which as a pensioner with the city, he will share in. Asked whether in the aftermath of the change in California law and Barstow officials’ acceptance of a taxing scheme on using marijuana sales as revenue source he felt he could justify to himself having engaged in applying the authority of arrest and initiating the prosecutions of individuals which had the potential or actual effect of subjecting them to incarceration, Harpole remained mute.
When queried directly about whether he saw any contradiction or conflict in the current circumstance vis-à-vis the past or if he perceived there was for him any sort of personal moral dilemma or if he felt any qualms with regard to it, he steadfastly maintained his silence. Nor was he willing to say whether he had abandoned his earlier belief that the sale of marijuana was rightfully deemed a felony that mandated prison time, and he was equally reticent in the face of inquiries as to how he felt it justifiable for the city and city officials to participate in a financial free-for-all and be recipients of a windfall involving the sale of marijuana.
One reason Harpole is refusing to be drawn into a discussion of the issue is concern on his part and that of California’s law enforcement officers generally that it will lead to the broaching of the subject of the State of California making reparations to all surviving current and former state residents who were arrested, convicted, jailed and imprisoned for marijuana offenses. Such reparations could run, calculations vary, from anywhere from $4 billion to $25 billion. One means of the state defraying the cost of those payments would be to redirect a significant portion of the money held in the retirement funds for police officers, prison guards and prosecutors to a trust fund to make payments to those convicted of marijuana-related crimes over the last 60 years who are yet alive. Such a move, it is estimated, would reduce those retirees’ pensions by as much as fifty percent.
-Mark Gutglueck

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