What’s worse: Drugs or the war on drugs?
Just days before U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed federal prosecutors to bring the toughest charges possible in drug cases, I was roaming the food court in the Thompson Center with James Gierach asking people that question.
Since 1989 Gierach, 72, a former assistant Cook County state’s attorney and son of a Cook County Circuit Court judge, has been campaigning to end the prohibition on narcotics in this country.
“People have used drugs since the beginning of time,” Gierach said. “Prohibition has never worked.”
Gierach was sharing his views on the drug war with two receptive men seated in the food court when a fellow at a nearby table could no longer contain himself.
“You’re a moron,” the man barked. “You obviously have never had a heroin addict point a gun at you, his hand so shaky he can’t even hold the gun straight. I have. You don’t want to create more addicts using guns to get money to buy drugs. You’re going to get more people killed. You must be an idiot.”
Gierach is no idiot. He was the youngest person elected to the Illinois Constitutional Convention in 1969. He is a graduate of Michigan State and DePaul University College of Law. A Palos Park resident, he ran unsuccessful campaigns for governor and Cook County state’s attorney, focusing on the benefits of legalizing drugs.
“Ask people today if drugs or the war on drugs is worse and they will tell you the war on drugs,” Gierach predicted. “The public’s opinion has changed. They realize the war on drugs has been a disaster and a failure”
The first three people we approach, at a suburban Metra station on our way into Chicago, all said drugs were worse than the war on drugs. Gierach is undeterred as he approaches a fourth person waiting for a train going downtown.
Brandon Coleman of Logan Square said, “I think the war on drugs is way worse,” much to Gierach’s delight.
“I think it costs too much,” Coleman adds. “It results in more crime. It encourages smuggling. It fosters political corruption and bribery. It erodes the public’s trust in law enforcement.”
These are all points Gierach likes to make in his speeches, which he has made throughout the world.
Entire nations have been corrupted by the illegal drug trade, he likes to say, and the United States is the largest consumer of those drugs. Billions of dollars have been spent buying drugs and billions of dollars more have been spent by governments enforcing laws intended to prevent their use.
“That’s money that could be used for social services, to help people,” Gierach said. “That’s revenue that could be used to build roads, schools.”
Many of the people we encounter during the day make the argument that they want to see the country spend more money on the drug war and put more people in prison to “end the violence.” Of the approximately 50 people we poll, about 30 are anti-drug and 20 are anti-drug war.
“It didn’t go as well as I hoped,” Gierach said. “But we’re finally legalizing medicinal marijuana and states are beginning to legalize recreational marijuana.
“Treat narcotics the way we treat alcohol. Let the states control it, tax it, take the profit motive out of it for the street gangs and international drug cartels.
“We’ve become the prison capital of the world. We are the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs. We’re the most violent country in the world, with the most homicides and shootings. The drug war is a failure.”
The public doesn’t seem to agree. At least, not yet.