Jim Gierach can’t believe it has taken so long for elected leaders to conclude that drug prohibition doesn’t work.

Some Cook County lawmakers and state legislators are renewing efforts to legalize recreational marijuana use in Illinois, with a push underway to place a referendum on election ballots next spring.

Gierach, a retired south suburban lawyer, has been arguing that America’s drug policy is a dismal failure since he ran for Cook County state’s attorney more than 25 years ago. He even ran for governor on the drug reform platform.

OPINION

“Listen, ending the prohibition on drugs won’t end drug addiction,” Gierach said. “What it would end is this terrible system where we toss thousands of people in prison, made ditch weed (marijuana) one of the most valuable commodities on Earth and made marijuana one of the key funding sources for street gangs.

In 1994, Jim Gierach ran for governor, calling for marijuana reform, and was considered a kook. This year J.B. Pritzker, the leading Democratic candidate for governor, said he favored legalized marijuana and was given an ovation during a debate. | Supplied photo

“A drug addict gets out of jail and can’t get a job, what does he do? He starts selling illegal drugs on street corners. Well, that’s a highly competitive business and if you want to stay alive, you’re going to get a gun.

“Then you’re going to end up shooting another drug dealer, or a police officer who comes after you or maybe you use that gun to rob someone else to get money to buy more drugs. Where are the street gang members getting their money for all these guns? By selling drugs.

“We spend way too much money in this country on drug enforcement and not nearly enough on drug education. It breaks down to 70 percent government spending on enforcement and 30 percent on education and treatment. It should be the other way around.”

It’s estimated that in Illinois legalizing recreational marijuana could generate $700 million a year in tax revenue. Governments need money to pay all those law enforcement and correctional officers.

I have heard police officers make the argument that increased marijuana use would lead to an increase in impaired driving.

How would anyone actually know? I mean, people drive while texting on their mobile phones. They drink coffee and smoke cigarettes while driving. They have a few drinks and pop a few opioids and get behind the wheel. There’s an argument there for self-driving cars.

“Each year police agencies burn up tons of marijuana they have confiscated,” Gierach said. “Do you realize how much money that represents? The government should test it, make sure it is not contaminated and sell it at a discounted price to undermine the illegal drug trade. Instead, by limiting the supply on the streets, we increase its profitability.

“And we need to regulate this stuff because right now people don’t know what they’re buying. It isn’t regulated. It isn’t inspected. It could be laced with PCP or contain pesticides and other contaminants.

“We need to make it easier for people who are addicts to get treatment. We force them to break the law to get the drugs they need. That result is more crime.”

What if legalizing and regulating recreational marijuana doesn’t make things better?

“Prohibition hasn’t worked,” Gierach said. “It is a dismal failure. We know that. Yet we keep making the problem worse instead of doing the one thing that would make it better, eliminating prohibition.”

I can remember when people called Gierach a kook when he first began campaigning for drug policy reform as a political candidate. Now his views on legalizing recreational marijuana use are in the political mainstream.

“It’s going to happen,” Gierach said. “There’s no doubt of that. It’s got to happen because nothing else makes sense. You know who really likes prohibition. The criminals.”

Email: philkadner@gmail.com