Sunday, March 29, 2009

Quiet conscience makes one strong - by Judge Jim Gray

Last week we discussed the importance of returning to American values. This is truly important because, in many ways, our great country is now at a crossroads. Will we continue to build upon the values that helped to make us great, including a reliance upon our native ingenuity, creativity, and work ethic? Or will we get soft and look evermore toward bigger government to take care of us?

Today we are facing daunting challenges to our economic way of life. So it’s naturally important for our general feelings of economic confidence to believe that government is “doing something” positive about the situation. But this also brings upon us the risk that we, and the government, will see government as the solution to our problems. And that is a dangerous course to take for our future, and for the future of our children.

Alexis de Tocqueville, after his famous tour of the United States in 1831, drew attention to this problem when he said that people are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. So people strive to satisfy them both at once, and that leads to irresolvable problems. Then de Tocqueville went on to anticipate the time that democracy would eventually collapse. He said that would occur when the people’s elected officials finally learned that they could bribe the people into voting for them with the people’s own money.

We are close to that situation today. It is time for us both to be aware of this fact, and to take action to assure it doesn’t happen. How can this be done? First by understanding that government is not the answer to our problems. In fact, as stated by President Ronald Reagan, in many ways government really is the problem because it tends to destroy private initiative.

Second, we must not accept mediocrity or laziness — in any one or any thing, beginning with ourselves. I once had a clerk who had a hand-written sign on her desk that said “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” This means, among other things, that if a system, or a government program, is not working, it is up to us to fix it.

For example, if a television program is harmful for our children because it shows too much violence or sexual content, don’t rely upon government to act: Monitor what your children watch, and turn off the television if the program is unsuitable. If there is no money in making television programs that cater to violence or sex, Hollywood will make different types of shows.

In addition, each of us can help to change our social morays. That means, among other things, that if a male, regardless of age, fathers a child, that male is responsible for the child’s support and upbringing. Every time! Our mores should be that a real man supports his family. But somehow society has allowed our social mores to be accepting of out-of-wedlock births and single motherhood. So, since it is our country, it is our responsibility to change away from that acceptance.

As a trial judge with 25 years of experience on the bench, I can also tell you that today we have many too many of our young people locked up. These are our children, so what is the matter with us?

Most of the problems are caused by a failure to have positive mentors and other role models for our children. We must realize that someone will always mentor our children.

And if it is not from their parents, debate teachers, basketball coaches, or YMCA instructors, children will get their mentoring from gang leaders, drug dealers, or even people like Charles Manson. Say what you will, Manson was brilliant at “mentoring” his “family,” and there are many people in our world today just like him. But give our children another vision, and the children will discover another way.

Let’s also help more to get government and its never-ending laws more out of our lives. For example, no employers hire people so they can discriminate against and harass them for racial, gender, or sexual-preference reasons, and then fire them. That makes no sense in real life. In fact, in almost every case, the employers have already “passed the test” by hiring those employees. So we should change our laws to allow an employer to fire any employee within the first year of two – for any reason at all.

What would be the result of changing this employment law? More of these protected classes of people would have jobs. Today, if an employer gets sued for discrimination, that employer, whether found liable or not, is likely to think: “Who needs it? Why should I take a risk in the future by hiring such a person?” But if there were this period of immunity to see if the employee was able to be productive, even if the original employee didn’t work out, the employer would not be deterred from hiring someone similar in the future. So this law actually works against equality in employment.

There is a story that, at the close of our Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what type of government the delegates had agreed upon for our country. He responded: “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Our Founding Fathers established for us a government ruled by law, but based upon the individual “We the People” as the sovereign.

But each of us must do our part. If we don’t vote and oversee government, some special interest will. If we don’t monitor and mentor our children, and provide them with productive visions of the future, they will be more likely to become unproductive and antisocial. And if we are not vigilant, even in these turbulent economic times, we will lose our cherished Republic.

As Anne Frank wrote in her diary, which became a literary classic: “A quiet conscience makes one strong.” She is right. We need that quiet conscience now. We must rely on ourselves and our innate abilities and ethics to overcome our problems of today. And we must not give in to the false but seductive allure that the answer lies with the all-knowing and all-protective government.

If it’s to be, it’s up to me.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at

Former judge fired up on making pot legal - Steve Lopez

All right, tell me this doesn't sound a little strange:

I'm sitting in Costa Mesa with a silver-haired gent who once ran for Congress as a Republican and used to lock up drug dealers as a federal prosecutor, a man who served as an Orange County judge for 25 years. And what are we talking about? He's begging me to tell you we need to legalize drugs in America.

 DISCUSS: Should drugs be legal?"Please quote me," says Jim Gray, insisting the war on drugs is hopeless. "What we are doing has failed."

As far as I can tell, Gray is not off his rocker. He's not promoting drug use, he says for clarification. Anything but. If he had his way, half the revenue we would generate from taxing and regulating drugs would be plowed back into drug prevention education, and there'd be rehab on demand.

So here he is in coat and tie -- with a U.S. flag lapel pin -- eating his oatmeal and making perfect sense, even when talking about the way President Obama flippantly dismissed a question about legalizing marijuana last week during a White House news conference.

"Politicians get reelected talking tough regarding the war on drugs," says Gray. "Do you want to hear the speech? Vote for Gray. I will put drug dealers in jail and save your children."

I had gone to visit Gray in part to discuss his support for a bill introduced last month by Democratic San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who is calling for marijuana to be regulated and taxed much like alcohol.

Does the bill have a chance?

I wouldn't bet a pack of Zig-Zag rolling paper. It's a provocative idea that gets dusted off now and again, but the usual reaction is either ridicule or sober concern about sending the wrong message to youths, among others, and making substance abuse a greater problem than it already is.

But take a look at the world, people.

Mexican drug lords are better armed than police and killing thousands who don't buy into the corruption -- with the violence crashing our borders -- and American enemies abroad are financed by the opium trade.

Ten days ago I visited a Los Angeles elementary school where students practice dropping to the floor and making themselves as flat as pancakes to avoid stray bullets from the gang-infested neighborhood, and drugs play a role in that violence. On Wednesday I strolled through downtown Los Angeles and marijuana smoke filled the air, a mocking reminder of the impossible task of eradicating drugs, despite the trillions spent and the thousands of people we've locked away in our jails and prisons.

Bravo to Hillary Rodham Clinton, says Gray, for admitting last week that American demand for drugs is responsible for the bloodshed in Mexico.

"But she got the facts right and the solution wrong," he says, just as everyone else has in a war that's been escalating for decades.

Gray was on the Municipal Court bench in the 1980s when he took his first hit from the reform pipe. The vast majority of the cases coming before him were alcohol-related, he said, and he was able to divert defendants into screening and recovery. But he couldn't do the same in drug cases, and he was frustrated, both in Municipal Court bench and later on the Superior Court bench.

"Our jails are filled with low-level users who sold to support the habit," says Gray, who believes that the tougher the criminal justice system gets on drug offenders, the fewer resources it has to go after rapists, robbers and other criminals.

In 1992 he called a news conference in Santa Ana and stated his case for legalized drugs. In Orange County, that was like coming out in favor of communism and nose rings, but Gray never flinched from insisting that the drug war was a waste of tax dollars and that it was putting too many citizens and police in harm's way. He became a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and wrote the book "Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It." "His book drives a stake through the heart of the failed war on drugs," says a back-cover blurb from Walter Cronkite.

Gray, by the way, is a former Peace Corps volunteer and Navy lawyer who now counts himself a Libertarian, all of which reminds us why we love California. He says his conservative roots make him the best man for the campaign to legalize drugs.

"Who better than a conservative judge in a conservative county who's never used any form of illicit drugs?" he asks.

When Ammiano's bill was introduced, Gray was invited to the news conference by the openly gay Democrat. 

"I have received standing ovations from the ACLU and the Young Republicans of Orange County," says Gray. "It crosses all political lines."

Not everyone thinks he's citizen of the year, though. Gray says he's often asked about sending the wrong message, and he responds with a reality check. Anyone who wants illegal drugs can easily get them, but doing so may put them in harm's way. Wouldn't it be smarter to sell the drugs at government stores, so advertising could be outlawed, taxes collected on one of California's biggest cash crops and drug gangs eradicated?

If Gray had his way, no one under 21 could buy drugs. But anyone older than that could legally buy marijuana -- which, he says, causes nowhere near the amount of death and disease as alcohol. The state would need to see how that works, he said, before moving on to legalizing the sale of harder drugs. Sure, he says, legalization might lead to more toking at first, but he believes drug use would wane when it was no longer forbidden and the novelty wore off.

I'm not sure I agree with that point, but I say we give it a try, and I do buy into Gray's argument about who the winners are in the current system.

First, there are the drug lords in Mexico and beyond. Then the drug gangs that peddle the stuff here. Next come the law enforcement agencies, prison contractors and prison guards, which use the war on drugs to demand more resources. And finally, there are the politicians who have wooed voters since the Nixon administration by pledging to support the war on drugs.

"My personal opinion," says Gray, "is that we couldn't have done worse if we tried."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Judge Jim Gray supports Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s proposed AB 390

Assemblyman Jose Solario
State Capitol Sacramento, California 95814

Re: Support for AB 390

Dear Jose:

 As a trial court judge in the Orange County Superior Court with more than 23 years of active service, I support Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s proposed AB 390.

 The objections that the opponents of this forward-thinking bill generally cite are, first, that marijuana causes harm to the user and to society, and second, that the bill would “send the wrong message to our children.” But the reality of the situation is that, first, marijuana is already abundant in California, and the rest of the country as well, so whatever harm it would cause is basically already upon us, and that, second, society would no more be encouraging or condoning children or anyone else to use marijuana by instituting these changes than it now encourages or condones anyone to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes.  

 But many other harms directly caused by our present system would be materially reduced by the program that would be established by AB 390, once federal law were to be changed to allow it to be implemented. These include the fact, as stated by the Honorable Betty Yee, chair of the State Board of Equalization, that the strictly regulated and controlled distribution of marijuana to adults over the age of 21 would bring in about $1.3 billion in additional tax revenue to our state.  

 Government estimates that presently illicit marijuana today is a $14 billion per year business in California alone, and, of course, that is untaxed revenue. Since AB 390 would undercut the present retail price of marijuana by about 50 percent, even with the $50 surcharge per ounce and applicable sales taxes, it would still generate this much-needed tax revenue. But in addition it would also save our taxpayers at least $1 billion that now we spend in a futile effort to eradicate marijuana and prosecute and incarcerate non-violent marijuana users.  

 In 2008, California authorities seized about 2.9 million marijuana plants with an estimated wholesale value of $11.6 billion in 542 raids. (In spite of this “success,” marijuana was still our state’s largest cash crop.) But the money that we spent on these raids could be saved, because by undercutting the price, AB 390 will do what the eradication efforts could not: come close to putting the Al Capones of the marijuana world out of business.

 In addition, today there are literally thousands of people in our state prisons because they did nothing but smoke marijuana. These were people who were on parole, with the condition that they use no form of illicit substance. But if they smoked marijuana at all they would either fail to appear for the drug testing or be tested positive. So either way they would be re-incarcerated. And often this has caused their families to go back onto welfare. Holding people accountable for their actions instead of punishing the mere smoking of marijuana would save taxpayers a sizeable amount of money.

 But even more importantly, AB 390 will make marijuana less available for our children! Today it is easier for our children to get marijuana, if they want to, than it is a six-pack of beer. Why is that? Because the alcohol is controlled and regulated by the government, and marijuana is controlled and “regulated” by illegal drug dealers, and they don’t ask for i.d.! As a consequence, no alcohol is offered for sale on high school campuses, but marijuana, including free samples to get them started, is offered to our children consistently.  

 Furthermore, today children are not being recruited to sell Coors beer or Jack Daniels bourbon, but they are routinely being recruited by adults to sell marijuana. Why would anyone do such a thing? Because then everyone makes more money! And to whom do these children sell their drugs? To people like us? No, they unfailingly sell the marijuana to their peers, thus recruiting more children to a lifestyle of marijuana usage and marijuana selling. As a trial court judge, I have seen this happen time and time again. It is not a pretty sight, and it is all caused directly by our present system.  

 Children are solicited to join juvenile street gangs for the same reason. And it works! Why? Because they want to be a “part of the action” in making money off the sale of illicit marijuana. So if passed and put into operation, AB 390 would probably be the most effective anti-gang legislation to have been enacted in a decade.

 Finally, I believe AB 390 should be amended to allow hemp, which is the stalk and seeds of the marijuana plant, and which can be manipulated so that they have no mind-altering properties whatsoever, to be treated like cotton or any other industrial crop. The industrial history of hemp goes back thousands of years, and the crops to be manufactured from it are another story in themselves. But today California’s merchants are required to import their raw hemp materials from countries like Canada and England, to the disadvantage of all of us in California. So that hindrance to competition for our industries must be addressed and changed.

 Certainly no system is perfect, but AB 390 is a major step in the right direction. That is why I so strongly support its passage, and also why I recommend that you and your colleagues give it your fullest favorable consideration and assistance.

 Naturally if I can be of further assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me either on my cell phone at xxx-xxx-xxxx, or by e-mail at

   Best personal regards,
  James P. Gray
  Judge of the Superior Court (Ret.)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Back to American fundamentals - by Judge Jim Gray

My friend Louis E. Carabini said in his book “Inclined to Liberty” that “There are those inclined to liberty, and those inclined to mastery.” Among other things, he explains that the answer to most of our economic problems today is more freedom and liberty, instead of less. Why? Because they work, and these are the fundamentals that have helped to make our country great. And for the good of our children, and our grandchildren, we must go back to them!

Contrary to the arguments of many detractors, this does not mean that “anything goes.” Absolutely to the contrary. Instead it means that we have reasonable laws, and that we enforce those laws — for everybody. That includes anti-trust and other anti-competitive laws, as well as truth in advertising and lending, and the enforcement of contracts and warranties. And it also means that we must enforce reasonable regulations to guard against some people’s innate proclivity illegally to cut corners and even engage in fraud.

But otherwise, we simply must go back to the time when we put into practice the traditional American values of self-reliance, which meant that people had to find creative ways to support themselves.

This will be facilitated by such things as relaxing some of the regulations against street vendors, allowing people to cut hair without encumbering license requirements, allowing more competition in taxicab businesses (even at airports and other lucrative locations), and allowing parents to decide whether their neighbors or others can perform child care activities. And this should be done without undue government interference, other than requiring the purveyors to be bonded or insured.

Why would these things be helpful? For two reasons. First, many more goods and services would become available at a much lower cost, and more people would be employed in providing them.

Second, some of these goods and services are being provided now, but through the “underground” economy. This means that presently there is no insurance available when things go wrong, and no sales or income taxes being paid to the government.

This approach would also result in government being much less intrusive, and, all importantly, much less expensive. That would be a good thing, because governments do not produce wealth. Instead, governments take wealth from some people, keep a good deal of it for themselves, and then redistribute the rest to others. As a result, those from whom wealth is taken spend large resources trying to figure out a way to keep more of it, and those who receive it have more incentives to appear to be more “deserving” for a handout by being unable to take care of themselves. So overall today there are fewer incentives to produce goods and services, and fewer incentives for people to get into productive activities.

Had this suggested approach been in effect for the past decade, our country would not have our present economic difficulties. Think of it this way: Even today, our consumer prices are not that high. In the 1950s, a silver dollar that weighed one ounce purchased about 5 gallons of gasoline. And it still does today: One ounce of silver is worth about $12.80 on the open market, and will still purchase about 5 gallons of gasoline. So the price of gasoline has not increased — only the inflation that has been overseen by government intrusion and mismanagement has.

Furthermore, this ethic of being “deserving” has pitted lots of different classes of people against each other, which results in the unproductive “them” versus “us,” or “villains” versus “victims” mentality. This situation is, of course, promoted by politicians in their desire to find and use scapegoats in their appeal for votes. Start listening for this typecasting in your everyday life, such as the “poor,” on the one hand, as opposed to the “filthy rich,” “selfish rich,” or “greedy rich,” on the other. Supporting these appeals leads us down the road to large government, economic stagnation, and socialism.

Is that where we want to go? I answer that question by passing along to you two different stories. The first was from a friend of mine who experienced the Soviet Union’s brand of socialism. He said in that world it was not at all unusual to see a mile-long freight train loaded with logs passing another mile-long freight train also loaded with logs but going in the opposite direction. I suppose this also happens in a free-market as well, but certainly not as often.

The second story was told to me by one of the justices on our courts of appeal. He said that before the fall of the Soviet Union he had traveled to Moscow and stayed in the nicest hotel in the city. At that time everyone had a job; that was not a problem. And it was the job of one of the men in the hotel to plug in his vacuum cleaner and vacuum the rug in the lobby. So that is what he did, every morning. Unfortunately, the vacuum cleaner had broken down months before, and there were no spare parts. Nevertheless, he would plug it in every morning and “vacuum” the rug. In short, governments do not perform well in running an economy, and we want to stay as far away from our government running ours as we can.

In this time of economic trouble, I agree that it is important for the general population to see and believe that our federal government is doing something positive. That will help to restore confidence. But otherwise, the answer is not for the government to procure even more of a mastery over us, spend even more of our money, or take over more of our economy. Instead, we must go in the other direction and revert to the fundamentals that made us strong in the first place. This thought was well summed up by a cowboy poem that I read this past week in the Los Angeles Times, and which ends as follows:

So in essence what I’m saying, 

“I’ve a plan to bail us out,

of all the troubles we are in,” 

I hope you’ll hear me out.

When we have the next election, 

it is time to take a stand.

Let’s send Washington some leaders

who make their living off the land.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of “Wearing the Robe — the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts.” He can be contacted at or via his website at

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Exploring new worlds: winemaking - by Judge Jim Gray

It’s easy to have a small fortune in the winemaking business, I’m told. All you have to do is to start with a large fortune.

But for years I have wondered about this seemingly mysterious process in the world of winemaking that begins with cultivation, and ends in gratification. So I asked my good friend Ron Kohut, who had moved to Santa Rosa a few years ago and is now the winemaker of his own Renegade Winery, about some of the things on my mind. My first question was about wine pricing.

What is the difference between an expensive bottle of wine and one that is more moderately priced?

“Paying a lot of money for a bottle of wine is usually a waste of money,” he said. “Personally I am reluctant to spend more than $30 for a bottle of wine, and then only if it’s a Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir that I know.

The futility of selecting wines by price can easily be demonstrated with what is known as a “blind tasting.” In a gathering of friends — and be sure to include those self-appointed wine “experts,” who are the people who nod gravely, with faces pensive, when sipping wine — set up the tasting.

Have four bottles of California Chardonnays and one French Chablis in the $7, $11, $15, $25, and $35 price ranges. Then cover the bottles, and have everyone try to rank the wines by price. For extra fun, ask if they can identify the French wine, as well as the “Reserve” wine, especially since the term “Reserve” has no controlled or legal meaning in the United States.

Most people can identify the $7 bottle of wine. But after that, all bets are off. Most of your friends will confidently conclude that the “best” tasting wine is both French and the most expensive. But when the bags are removed, the best-tasting wine is usually the $15 wine from California. And the dedicated wine snob will not perform any better in this tasting than anyone else.

Skeptical? Give it a try.

And while you’re at it, ask your friends about the “aromas” of wine. Buy a copy of the Wine Spectator, or similar wine magazine, and also several of the wines mentioned in the “reviews” section that list several aroma components for the wines. Then, at the same party, ask your friends to list the aromas they experience when they swirl and then sip their wines.

The listing, of course, should be done on a piece of paper, and not aloud. Afterwards, collect the papers. Normally, no two descriptions or aromas will be alike, and none will match those identified in the review.

But that is not surprising. Ron says that he has often sent his wines out to several reviewers and received back their aroma listings. And he has yet to receive back the same, or even similar, listings by these professionals for the same wine.

So is all of this aroma business a lot of hoopla? Actually not. Anne Noble, of the University of California at Davis, has created an “aroma wheel” for wines that can be purchased online. And Anne can, in fact, accurately identify many aroma components in a wine.

But for the casual wine consumer, much of the pricing and discussions of aroma are mostly just marketing. A good bottle of wine in a friendly or romantic setting is a hard experience to beat. And when it comes down to it, selecting a wine should be no more complicated than finding a wine you like at a price you are comfortable paying.

So, how are the wines priced? Most likely, the wines in the $11 and $15 price ranges are produced by large commercial wineries that must consistently deliver an easily drinkable wine. That is why, for example, the Kendal-Jackson Chardonnay is the most widely sold wine-by-the-glass in the United States.

In the higher price ranges, there are certainly some exceptional wines. But you have to know what you are buying. And that means doing some research. Furthermore, it also means that consumers are not hitting the search functions on their iPhones when standing in front of an array of wines at the supermarket to help them select their wines. So, unless you know something about wine, paying more than $15 to $20 for a bottle of wine is likely to be a disappointment. In fact, in many instances, you will only be paying for successful marketing.

Finally, I asked him about the glamour of winemaking. “It’s not exactly glamorous!” Ron laughed. “It’s a long arduous journey that just begins with the harvesting of the very best grapes. Then there’s the crush, fermentation, filtering, and, finally, bottling. There are a lot of mistakes that can be made during each stage of the process.”

Yes, it is a labor of passion, my good friend said, but it also can be unexpectedly fun. He recalled a time when he had a mobile bottling unit set up at his winery, but no workers to operate the eight-person system.

“I called my friends,” Ron said, “and they all came.” Why not? Who would turn down an opportunity to participate in the birth of a great wine. “It took a long time,” he continued, “but we bottled a great Zinfandel, and had some good cheese and music while we worked. And we turned it into a big party.”

The bottom line is that winemaking itself is not as glamorous as wine drinking. The folks in the vineyards and wineries work hard and take many risks in order to deliver that bottle of wine that serves as the centerpiece for most celebrations. Wine marketing is even harder. But we all can enjoy those people’s labors by grabbing our special someones and a nice bottle of wine, and heading out for a picnic. And we can let the wine’s aromas take us where they will.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The way government should be - by Judge Jim Gray

Recently I was able to meet Orange County Treasurer and Tax Collector Chriss Street and take a tour of his offices. I was genuinely impressed with what he is doing, and wanted to pass along my findings to you as an example of the way I believe government should be.

Chriss was sworn in to these positions on Dec. 5, 2006. The first time I heard of Chriss Street was when he and John Moorlach sounded the alarms about former Treasurer Bob Citron and his speculative investments. Moorlach originally ran against Citron for treasurer and lost, and then successfully ran for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. Then Street ran for Citron’s former position, and won.

The Offices of the Treasurer and Tax Collector are authorized to have a total staff of 120 employees and send out about 880,000 property tax bills each year. They are also required to collect the tax money, invest it prudently, and make it available for county agencies partially to finance their budgets. In other words, this is the life blood of the county government and a big operation.

When he came on board, Street utilized a totally new management style in his new office, thereby taking a slow, impersonal and even dull office to one that is now vibrant, cost-effective, and service-oriented. He did this by turning his employees into a team, and incorporating other practical incentives into their work life.

For example, everyone is on a first-name basis, starting with Chriss himself. He also removed all of the private offices where managers and other workers were shielded from their fellow workers and installed nice, semi-private cubicles. He also updated their computers and computer programs to make accurate information more readably available. In addition, all workers have a laptop and a Blackberry, so that they can carry out some of their functions from home. And if the staff can reduce the amount of time that it takes to answer 99% of the telephone calls from their clients (which is the public) down below 7 seconds, everyone can enjoy casual clothing days at work.

Have his efforts been successful? Here is the good part. Secured tax collection, which is revenue that is secured by deeds of trust on real property, has increased by $317 million, and unsecured revenue for this year increased by $6.3 million and for the past year by $3.6 million. All of that has allowed an additional $161 million to be allocated to the county’s schools, and an additional $37.6 million to various county agencies. By comparison, Orange County now has a 96.5% property tax collection rate, compared to 92% for San Bernardino and 91% for Riverside Counties.

Additional good news is that between fiscal years 2006/2007 and 2008/2009, his office has actually returned $4 million of its own budget back to the county. Name me any other governmental agency anywhere that has done anything close to that. And even though he is allotted 120 workers, without firing anybody, Chriss’ offices now only employ 92 workers.

And has his staff been able to wear casual clothing to work? Recently yes, almost all of the time, because the telephone wait time that averaged 50 seconds in fiscal year 2005/2006 was reduced to 7 seconds in fiscal year 2007/2008.

By the way, since the phones are answered more efficiently and the callers’ questions responded to more accurately, the number of calls has been reduced. This means that the staff required to answer those calls has accordingly been reduced from 29 to about 16.

During the time Chriss Street has been there, his office has been forced to increase fees or “cost recoveries” in 14 different areas, such as delinquent taxes and Mello Roos. But it has also been successful in reducing two others. And where it took about 105 days to refund overpayments of taxes when he began, which was a violation of state laws, this is now accomplished within three weeks.

Finally, the office is functioning so well now that it is actually “hiring out” to do work for other county agencies. For example, the Orange County Health Care Agency has delegated the task of collecting money for animal licenses to the Office of the Treasurer.

And Chriss is also now in negotiations with the county probation office as well as four different cities to do some of their billing and remittance work.

Chriss Street’s approach to government has worked so well that he is trying to share it in a new book he is writing titled “The Third Way,” which is scheduled to be published by Seven Locks Press. The book focuses on the successful approach of using leadership and cooperation instead of confrontation to stop turmoil and in-fighting and to become a team. Personally, I hope that all managers in government get a copy.

So in this time of so many failures of government, I am overjoyed to report that there is one county agency that is working like government should. And this comment comes from a Libertarian!

If you want to learn more for yourself, call Chriss Street at (714) 834-3411 and make arrangements to take your own tour. Like any good public servant, Street enjoys being open and encourages honest feedback.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author or Wearing the Robe: the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2009), and can be contacted at or through his website at

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Treating pot like alcohol - by Judge Jim Gray

I recently participated in a news conference in San Francisco with Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, Chairwoman Betty Yee of the State Board of Equalization, and Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan to support Assembly Bill 390, which would treat marijuana like alcohol in California. San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey also supports the bill.

AB 390 would allow adults older than 21 to buy, own and use marijuana sold in accordance with a specified state plan. The bill would also require the product to be subject to a tax surcharge of $50 an ounce, in addition to normal sales taxes.

Importantly, the bill further strengthens the penalties for anyone selling, possessing, or using marijuana near a school, and continues to hold people accountable for their actions, such as driving under its influence.

Today, even though it is still illegal, marijuana is the largest cash crop in California. In fact, marijuana is estimated today to be a $14-billion yearly crop; the No. 2 crop in our state is grapes. Further, it is easier today for our children to get marijuana, if they want to, than a six-pack of beer.

How do I know that? Because I ask them — and you should too! — Because today’s sellers of marijuana don’t ask for ID.

As we have discussed in this column before, treating marijuana like alcohol would have five results, and all of them would be beneficial.

First, we taxpayers would save about $1 billion that we now spend each year in a transparently futile effort to eradicate marijuana, and to prosecute and incarcerate non-violent marijuana users.

Second, we could tax the stuff, and, according to the estimate of the State Board of Equalization, could generate at least $1.33 billion in revenue each year.

But the third result would dwarf the first two because, as we have discussed, this program would make marijuana less available for our children than it is today.

Fourth, any ambiguity about medical marijuana dispensaries would be eliminated.

And fifth, we would be able to revitalize the hemp industry. This is not a minor result because hemp, which is the stalk and seeds of the marijuana plant and which can be manipulated to have no mind-altering properties whatsoever, has a multitude of practical usages.

For example, farmers can produce four times the amount of paper pulp from an acre of hemp as they can from an acre of trees. Other products such as plywood, lacquer, rope, gunny sacks, mulch, and fuel more efficient than corn are also made from hemp. Furthermore, today you can go to stores like Trader Joe’s and buy a lip balm made from hemp, as well as hemp-seed granola, which is quite nutritious and flavorful. But under our present policy, our merchants are required to import their raw material from radical countries like Canada and England, where their farmers have been allowed to grow hemp for years.

There would probably also be two additional results.

The first would be a tendency to increase the usage of marijuana for adults. This would probably last for six months to a year, until the novelty wore off. For example, in Holland, where anyone 16 or older can use marijuana and hashish, the minister of health reported that his country has only half the marijuana usage per capita than we do here — both for adults and for teenagers.

Then he went on to explain why, when he said that “We have succeeded in making pot boring.” Of course, we glamorize it, and set up a huge profit motive for others to get us to use it.

Finally, it is clear that the laws of a society are an indication of its values. So changing our laws might indicate to some people that the usage of marijuana was “no big deal.” But as a practical matter, just because we repealed alcohol prohibition did not mean that society recommended people go out and drink a martini, or even a beer. It simply was understood as a statement that society was going to address the issue of alcohol distribution and usage in a different manner. In fact, just because cigarettes are not illegal for adults does not mean that society condones their usage. The same would be true for marijuana.

Surveys show that, despite its illegality, about 25 million people in our country use marijuana regularly today, and about 100 million Americans have tried it at one point in their lives. That includes former President Clinton, and also President Obama who, when asked while on the campaign trail if he had ever inhaled, responded by saying “I thought that was the whole idea.” It also includes about half of the top 10% of the students in my 1971 graduating class at USC Law School, and to my knowledge all of them have been successful in life.

AB 390 expressly acknowledges that this program would still be a violation of federal law, so it would not go into effect until 30 days after those federal laws had been changed. But if the voters of California were to approve this bill, it could not help but influence a change at the federal level.

How can we as a state and a country continue to be so blind to reality? The entire country of Mexico is now being terrorized by violence and corruption from drug lords. But this is not caused by drugs: It is instead caused by drug money. Worse yet, it is our drug money that is causing the harm! And that same violence and corruption are increasingly spilling over the border into our country.

Under our present system of marijuana prohibition, we could not achieve more harmful results if we tried. The availability of marijuana both to us and to our children is up; the presence of violence and corruption is up and rising; the number of people’s lives that are being ruined by them or their parents being sent to jail and prison is up; and none of the vast profits that are made by the sale of marijuana are being taxed. In addition, since we only have limited criminal justice resources, getting “tough” on marijuana prosecutions means that we have gotten “soft” on all other prosecutions, including robbery, rape and murder.

In that regard, you should also be aware that at this moment there are thousands of people filling up our jails and prisons who have done nothing but smoke marijuana. The reason is that it is always a condition of probation or parole for the subject not to use any form of illicit substances. Therefore, if people on probation or parole smoke even one marijuana cigarette, that substance will stay in their systems and be detectable by urinalysis for up to 30 days. Then if they either fail to report for drug testing, or if they test positive, they are almost automatically taken back into custody. That not only costs us taxpayers about $30,000 per inmate per year, it also frequently places that inmate’s family back on the welfare roles.

So now is the time for you to help. Please contact your representatives, such as Assemblyman Chuck DeVore at (916) 319-2070, Assemblyman Van Tran at (916) 319-2068, Sen. Tom Harman at (916) 651-4035 or Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at (916) 445-2841, and tell them that they should support AB 390. And please contact your family and friends and ask them to do the same.

I have never used marijuana. Furthermore, I never intend to do so, unless it would be recommended to me by my physician to relieve some form of harmful medical condition. You probably feel the same way. But if you don’t and you, like millions of others in our country, would use marijuana, you are probably doing so already. So in that event at least you will not be required to associate with criminals to obtain the stuff, and will not automatically be a criminal yourself. And along the way, you can help us to balance our state budget.

JAMES P. GRAY can be contacted at or via his website at