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He was 30 years ahead of his time on legalizing marijuana

In 1989, former Cook County assistant state’s attorney, Jim Gierach, publicly advocated the legalization of marijuana.

James Gierach in 2007. Sun-Times files

He was a handsome young politician on the rise. A former Cook County assistant state’s attorney with a successful municipal law practice in Chicago’s south suburbs. And then Jim Gierach did something that caused people to question whether he was bent on self-destruction.

In 1989, he publicly advocated the legalization of marijuana and other street drugs. He ran for state’s attorney professing his belief that the nation’s drug policy was all wrong.

He lost that campaign.

But in 1994, he ran for governor embracing the same radical themes. People who knew him shook their heads in disbelief. He got almost no support at the polls. Many friends turned their backs on him. He had destroyed his seemingly bright political future.

So, this week I called Gierach, who lives in Palos Park, to ask if he felt vindicated now that Illinois has legalized the recreational use of marijuana.

“I’m thrilled,” Gierach responded. “Vindicated? I advocated for the legalization of all narcotics. I wanted the government to come in and regulate it, tax it, and get it out of the hands of organized crime and street gangs.

“I guess I feel vindicated in a way because at least it’s an acknowledgment that putting hundreds of thousands of people in prison, wasting billions of dollars in tax money, criminalizing people for addictive behavior, was wrong and stupid.

“I campaigned for governor in 1994 urging the state to legalize drugs. I was a day late and a dollar short. Actually, when you look at Gov. Pritzker and his campaign, I guess you could say I was 25 years early and about $121 million short,” Gierach said with a laugh. “I spent about $1 on my campaign 25 years ago.”

Now 74, Gierach has spent much of his life since that time making speeches, appearing at international conferences and attending rallies throughout the world trying to convince people that government bans on narcotics are not only ineffective, but wrong-headed.

“We’ve known that since Al Capone and Prohibition,” Gierach said. “Making a substance illegal merely increases its value. It doesn’t stop its use. It creates a culture where organized crime can grow. It corrupts government and law enforcement.

“It simply does not work.

“With marijuana, you took a ditch weed and turned it into a cash crop,” he said. “You also had thousands of people sitting in prison cells. That made them almost unemployable when they were released and then you had to fund programs to support all those people and their families when they couldn’t get jobs.

“The reason I campaigned for legalizing these substances is because our elected officials were cowards pandering to the public. I knew they were destroying this country.

“They were not only throwing addicts in prison, they passed minimum mandatory sentencing laws, three strikes and you’re out and came up with that brilliant, ‘Just Say No’ campaign.

“You know, I never used drugs. Not marijuana. Nothing. I oppose drug use.

“I just had to say something because we were spending so much money on the drug war, we couldn’t fund public education or national health care. We were funding organized crime and we didn’t have enough money to put police on the streets to stop the murders in Chicago.

“Do I feel vindicated? I guess so. But we still need to acknowledge prohibition doesn’t work. The government needs to make drugs available to addicts in safe houses. Take it out of the hands of the criminals and you cut into distribution and start reducing the number of addicts. We have people dying in this country because heroin is being laced with Fentanyl, making it cheaper, more addictive and more deadly.”

It’s been 30 years since Gierach had the courage to speak the truth in a political campaign. Millions of lives have been wasted, thousands have died, foreign leaders assassinated, and billions of dollars made by some of the worst criminals in the world.

But hey, who is counting?

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