Drug War Winners & the Status Quo

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Liberty Magazine Article

For more than two decades I was a soldier in the War on Drugs. In the course of my career, I have helped put drug users and dealers in jail; I have presided over the break-up of families; I have followed the laws of my state and country, and have seen their results.

At one point, I held the record for the largest drug prosecution in the Los Angeles area: 75 kilos of heroin, which was and is a lot of narcotics. But today the record is 18 tons. I have prosecuted some people, and later sentenced others, to long terms in prison for drug offenses, and would do so again. But it has not done any good. I have concluded that we would be in much better shape if we could somehow take the profit out of the drug trade. Truly the drugs are dangerous, but it is the drug money that is turning a disease into a plague.

I saw the heartbreaking results of drug prohibition too many times in my own courtroom. I saw children tempted by adults to become involved in drug trafficking for $50 in cash, a lot of money to a youngster in the inner city, or almost anywhere else. Once the child’s reliability has been established in his roles as a lookout or “gofer,” he is soon trusted to sell small amounts of drugs, which, of course, results in greater profits both for the adult dealer and his protégé. The children sell these drugs, not to adults, but to their peers, thus recruiting more children into a life of taking and selling drugs. I saw this repeated again and again. But like others in the court system, I didn’t talk about it.

More than once, I saw a single mother who made a big mistake: she chose the wrong boyfriend, a drug dealer. One day, he offered her $400 to carry a particular package across town and give it to a fellow dealer. She strongly suspected that it contained drugs, but she needed the money to pay her rent. So she did it, and she was arrested, convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for the transportation of cocaine. Since the mother legally abandoned her children because she could not take care of them, they all came to me, in juvenile court, to be dealt with as abused and neglected children.

I tell these mothers that unless they are really lucky and have a close personal friend or family member that is both willing and able to take care of them until she is released from custody, her children will probably be adopted by somebody else. That is usually enough to make the mother hysterical.

Taxpayers shouldn’t be very happy, either. Not only does it cost about $25,000 to keep the mother in prison for the next year; it also costs about $5000 per month to keep a child in a group home until adoption. For a family of a mother and two children, that means that our local government has to spend about $145,000 of taxpayer money for the first year simply to separate a mother from her children. And it falls upon me to enforce this result. I do it, because I am required by my oath of office to follow the law. But there came a time when I could be quiet about this terrible situation no longer. I concluded that helping to repeal drug prohibition was the best and most lasting gift I could make to my country.

On April 8, 1992, I held a press conference outside the Courthouse in Santa Ana and recommended that we as a country investigate the possibility of change. Since that time, I have spoken on this subject as often as possible, consistent with getting my cases tried. Most people listen; some agree, and others still want to punish me for my attempts to have an open and honest discussion of drug policy. In that vein, I remember a short introduction I once received before one of my talks, which was along the lines of: “I know you all want to hear the latest dope from the courthouse, so here’s Judge Gray.”
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