Monday, December 1, 2008



As all sophisticated people know, life is full of distinctions. One of those critical distinctions that we will discuss today is the difference between drug problems, and there certainly are many, as opposed to drug money problems.

  There is no doubt that illicit drugs can sometimes be dangerous and addictive and cause harm. Many people’s health and lives have been ruined, and families torn apart emotionally and financially because of the havoc caused by the abuse of and addiction to illicit drugs. So without question this is a big problem.

  But there are also big problems that are caused exclusively by drug money. For example, for years we have been hearing and reading about the large-scale violence and corruption that takes place with drug dealers in Colombia, Mexico, Afghanistan and many other countries. And certainly the United States has had its share of this violence and corruption as well. These problems are not caused by the drugs themselves, they are caused by the drug money.

  Similarly, it is drug money that is causing drug-addicted people to commit crimes in order to get the money for their drugs. Obviously that includes burglaries, purse-snatchings, check offenses, shop-liftings, and prostitution. As a practical matter, all of the illicit drugs themselves are extremely inexpensive to raise, manufacture and package. In fact they are actually “dirt cheap.” The only reason they are expensive is because they are illegal, and that expense causes many crimes.

  For example, marijuana is not called a “weed” for nothing. It will grow virtually anywhere. In fact, for all of our efforts for its eradication, marijuana is presently the largest cash crop in California. (Number two is grapes, if you care.) And even though the DEA has gone to great lengths to convince us that the opium poppy can only be grown in mountainous regions, the National Park Service was actually growing those poppies for years at Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello before the DEA found out about it and made them take them out. (They are a beautiful flower.) So if the opium poppies will grow in Virginia, it is pretty obvious that they will grow anywhere.  

  But now I want to talk to you about another drug money problem that you probably are not aware of. The following scenario would take place in my courtroom about every four or five weeks when I was sitting on a Juvenile Court calendar. There would be, for example, a single mother of two small children who made a bad decision, namely she decided to hook up with the wrong boyfriend. The man would be selling drugs and the mother would generally be aware of it, but that is the way things were.

  One fine day the boyfriend would tell the mother that if she would take a package across town and give it to “Charlie,” he would give her $500 for her efforts. She would basically know the package contained drugs, but she was behind on her rent and the $500 would really help. So she would do it. And then she would be arrested and convicted for the offense of transporting drugs, and sentenced to five years in prison. Now to be honest, in today’s world being sentenced to five years in prison for transporting four ounces or so of cocaine is not an unreasonable sentence.  

But let me ask you a question: when the mother is put in prison, what happens to her children? Well, that answer is easy. The mother has legally abandoned her children since she is not available to take care of them. As a consequence they would all come to me in Juvenile Court on the Abused and Neglected Children calendar.  

So I would have this young mother in my court in a jail jumpsuit and handcuffs and I would tell her the truth, which was that she would not functionally be a part of her children’s lives for the next five years. At that point she would usually become misty-eyed at the realization. (Wouldn’t you?) But then I would tell her the brutal truth, which was that unless she was really lucky and either had a close personal friend or family member that was both willing and able to take custody of her children until she was released, her children would probably be adopted by somebody else by the time she got out of prison. At that point she would usually break down in tears. (Wouldn’t you?)

But if that human tragedy is not enough to break you down, I can probably dissolve you in tears as a taxpayer. Because in the first year, we will be spending upwards of $5,000 per month per child to keep them in a group home until they can be adopted by someone else. That means that in that first year we will be spending about $60,000 per child, times two children, plus an additional $25,000 to keep the mother in prison. As a result we will be spending somewhere around $145,000 in taxpayer money physically to separate a mother from her children!  

And who gets to enforce this situation? I do. Of course I do it because I have sworn to uphold the law. But I do not have to do it quietly, and that is why I am passing on this story to you.

So from my experience and perspective, if we would change our drug laws to hold people accountable for their actions instead of what they put into their bodies, we would begin greatly to reduce the drug money crime. And this could be easily done by undercutting the market for the sale of illicit drugs to adults.  

As was discussed in an earlier column, we could start by treating marijuana like alcohol. That would result in the savings of huge amounts of taxpayer money that are presently being spent on efforts to eradicate marijuana and to prosecute non-violent marijuana users. In addition, we could generate additional billions of dollars annually simply by taxing the sales of marijuana to adults, just like we do for alcohol. And all of this would have the substantial additional benefit of making marijuana less available for our teenagers than it is today. Why? Because illicit drug dealers don’t ask for i.d.

So what is not to like? We should pattern our conduct after most countries in Europe and start to address these problems as managers instead of moralists. This would reduce the crime, violence and corruption brought about by drug money. And then we could re-focus our efforts upon the actual drug problems themselves, like many countries are doing in Europe.

I think that everyone agrees that the federal government does not have all of the answers in this area, so why don’t we allow each state to decide what is best for its people? This is the concept of federalism upon which our great country was founded. There are viable alternatives to our present failed federal policy of Drug Prohibition, so let’s allow each state to try some alternatives. What do you think?

James P. Gray is a Judge of the Superior Court in California, the author of Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It - A Judicial Indictment of the War on Drugs (Temple University Press, 2001) and Wearing The Robe - The Art And Responsibilities of Judging In Today's Courts, has a blog at, and can be contacted at

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