Beginning to see the light

News flash! On June 22, the Chicago Sun-Times published an editorial recommending a radical change in our nation’s drug policy. The editorial began by saying: “When will we accept that America’s war on drugs is over – we lost – and it’s time to get real about our drug laws?” Then the editorial continued: “Medical marijuana should be legalized. Pot more generally should be decriminalized. And the carnage in our streets and in Mexico begs that we rethink our nation’s approach to the sale and use of more serious drugs as well.”

People around the world and institutions like the Sun-Times are beginning to see the light, because the evidence of the failure of our policy of drug prohibition is all around us. Another of those institutions is the NAACP, whose president announced on this past June 29 that: “We are joining a growing number of medical professionals, labor organizations, law enforcement authorities, local municipalities, and approximately 56% of the public in saying that it is time to decriminalize the use of marijuana.”

Why is all of this happening? Well, among other things more people are beginning to understand that many of the problems with youth gangs, such as shootings, drug sales, and even the recruitment of young people to that dead-end lifestyle, are directly traced to drug prohibition. Police can disrupt the drug trafficking of gangs only to a limited degree, but, they like Al Capone and other such thugs in the alcohol distribution business before them, can only really be put out of that lucrative business by a pronounced change in policy.

Prison overcrowding? We have filled our prisons with young men and women who have committed drug-related crimes – which the Sun-Times rightfully calls “a shameful waste of human potential and the taxpayers’ money” – but, just like holding a bucket under a waterfall fills up lots of buckets with water, that act can do nothing to shut off the flow.

Foreign policy? In Mexico, where President Calderon has been waging his own war on drugs, the killing and corruption still continue to increase. The Sun-Times addresses those realities and cites the concern of many that Mexico is in danger of becoming a failed state because of them. Only the repeal of drug prohibition has the chance of saving our neighbor to the south from that fate.

So if all of these facts are becoming clear, why has this failed policy been allowed to continue? Because traditionally many people have harbored the idea that this policy, “for all of its defects,” will keep drugs away from our children. But the bitter truth is that drug prohibition has made drugs stronger, cheaper and more available to our kids than any other system ever would have.

In addition to these other self-inflicted wounds, prohibition has materially increased cases of accidental drug overdose, unregulated drug poisoning, gang shootings, the killing of police and innocent victims caught in the crossfire, and AIDS infections and hepatitis contracted from dirty needles. And since we will never run out of people who are willing to take risks for selling small quantities of drugs for large amounts of money, the most effective way we can bring peace back to our streets, neighborhoods, and schools is to repeal the fundamental cause of the disruption, which is drug prohibition.

Furthermore, there are only so many resources allocated to the criminal justice system, so the “tougher” we get on drug crimes, literally the “softer” we get on the prosecution of everything else. Thus with a change away from drug prohibition, our law enforcement agencies will be able to divert scarce resources back to the underfunded investigation and prosecution of other crimes like robbery, rape, murder and fraud.

But there is even more! Today our country exports more cash to other countries because of the sales of illicit drugs than anything else, except oil. Forget all of our purchases of Toyota automobiles and Sony television sets, the bigger cash outflow is brought about by illegal drugs. And by the way, think of the reduced violence the repeal of drug prohibition will bring to countries like Colombia, Afghanistan, Thailand, Bolivia, Mexico and Nigeria, as well as the accompanying loss of profits and power to the drug lords and cartels there that today are thriving under our present policy!

Finally, the laws of drug prohibition have also resulted in a virtual prohibition of medical research on addiction and related problems. But with the recent liberalization of attitudes, medical science has begun to learn more about the properties of many of these presently illicit drugs. For example, in addition to its other perceived benefits, there is some indication that medical marijuana can also be helpful for autistic children. (For more information, please visit

You can help in this inevitable movement by supporting the “Tax and Regulate Cannabis Act of 2010,” which will be on the November ballot and which would treat marijuana like alcohol for adults. Its most effective result will be to make marijuana less available for children than it is today by tightening the laws against selling or furnishing marijuana to people under the age of 21. (Of course today the illegal marijuana dealers don’t ask for I.D.) And this measure expressly will not affect existing laws about driving under the influence or behavior in the workplace. Of course, it will also have the side benefit of taxing our state’s largest cash crop, which will help our state’s balance of payments problems.

Ironically, my generation of the 1960s has supported the punishment of our children’s youthful drug indiscretions that takes away their freedoms, dignity, reputations, hope, Pell grants and otherwise bright futures for doing the very same thing that many of them did at the same age! Ask yourselves, do you think that incarceration would have helped the lives and careers of Presidents Bill Clinton or Barack Obama – or the Olympic career of swimmer Michael Phelps? No, although marijuana certainly has its harms, the most harmful thing connected to marijuana today is jail. You can help us in November to reduce many of those harms.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)