Jim Gierach a former Assistant Stateâ€™s Attorney of Cook County, Illinois and Richard Van Wickler superintendent for the Cheshire County, New Hampshire Department of Corrections call for the legalization of drugs
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
And we’re continuing our discussions with members of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. These are people that come from the law enforcement business who are against the war on drugs, and they are for legalization of drugs because they think it makes more sense.
Now joining us to continue these discussions is, first of all, Richard Van Wickler. Richard’s the superintendent for Cheshire County, New Hampshire, Department of Corrections. He served three years in the active component of the U.S. Army and retired in December 2006 after 26 years of military service. He also teaches justice studies at Keene State College. Thanks for joining us, Richard.
RICHARD VAN WICKLER, SUPERINTENDENT, CHESHIRE COUNTY, NH, DEPT. OF CORRECTIONS: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: And also joining us is Jim Gierach. And I think I messed your name up. Did I?
JIM GIERACH, FMR. ASST. STATES’ ATTORNEY, COOK COUNTY, IL: You did fine.
JAY: Well, give me it right.
GIERACH: Jim Gierach.
JAY: Thank you very much. He’s a former assistant state’s attorney of Cook County, Illinois. He spent more than 20 years fighting drug prohibition as a candidate for Cook County state’s attorney. And he ran for governor in Illinois in the Democratic primary. As an author and speaker, he’s debated drug policy issues with the former head of the DEA and drug advisers to the White House, including once on The Real News Network. Thanks very much for joining us.
GIERACH: My pleasure.
JAY: So start off a bit with your own story. You’re assistant state attorney and you’re in the law enforcementâ€”you’re in the Justice Department. The whole culture is about drugs are illegal, they’re bad, get the bad guys. When does that change for you?
GIERACH: In the early ’70s, I was a prosecutor, primarily prosecuting homicides in Cook County. After four years in the office, I left and was really away from the criminal justice system and represented cities, villages, townships as a municipal attorney, trying injury cases and so forth. And in the early 1990s we had some 12 kids killed in one week in Chicago in gang violence and drug violence, and I would listen to the politicians give their tough on drugs, get tough on crime, three-time loser laws, build some prisons, show ’em who’s boss, take back our streets. And the problems became worse as we tried those strategies.
JAY: Well, you said something to me off-camera that I thought was very interesting. When you told me you were prosecuting murders, I just assumed a lot of those murders must have been drug-related. But you say no.
VAN WICKLER: There was little drug problem in the early ’70s. We had some people coming back from Vietnam who became addicted because substances were available, but they had a screening process before somebody was returned. They made sure that they were off and sober and once the pressures of war were relieved and you’re not so near the opium products and so forth, and it wasn’t a big problem. So, in Chicago in the early ’70s the best heroin you could get was 2 percent pureâ€”Mexican mudâ€”black tar, actually. And then 40 years go by, and now, after 40 years of drug war, 90 percent pure heroin. Kids are buying it in nickelcorrected and dime bags and having parties. It’s so pure you don’t need to use a needle. So, ironically, prohibition is the most effective way to put more drugs uncontrolled and unregulated everywhere.
JAY: And when does this click for you?
GIERACH: Well, when I hear [crosstalk] because the murders were just epidemic in Chicago. And if we were going to stop the violence, we had to do something about drug policy. The difficulty is when you go to the public, the public is against drug use. I’m against drug use. Drug use is not preferable.
But the more you try to suppress drug use, the worse the problem becomes. The harder you try to repress it, the price increases, which is what the drug czar’s office tries to do. And as the price increases through your success in seizures, you end up, as an incentive to the suppliers, to supply more in order to earn the money. So you take something that grows on a plant and make it the most valuable commodity on the face of the earth, and you wonder why the kid who’s told to stay away from drugs quits school, joins a gang, gets the guns, shooting each other fighting over who’s going to make the money, with then more drugs available than ever, huge drug seizures, which obviously evidence the failure of the war on drugs.
It’s not a success to have the ton of drugs seized. And then, once we seize it, we burn the drugs as if we’re acting on behalf of the drug cartels. So they remain the exclusive sellers of the drugs. So law enforcement is basically working for the cartels and for the street gangs with this insane prohibition we have in place.
JAY: And this became clear to you as you’reâ€”while you’re still a prosecutor.
GIERACH: No. In those early years, I was a gung-ho prosecutor and I thought that drugs was the equivalent to crime. So I was so tough on drugs that I actually would hand the file to the next guy who said, you know, the guy shouldn’t get the worst prosecutor in here on drugs, because I think it’s so bad, when other people didn’t think it was so bad at that time.
JAY: So you do a 180.
GIERACH: I did absolutely a 180, not because drugs are good, but because prohibition is the most effective [way] to make the problem the worse.
JAY: So, Richard, you go intoâ€”sorry. You’re in the military for quite some time, then you go into law enforcement, essentially, with corrections. Do you go in thinking this is a rational drug policy? Or do you already know this makes no sense for you?
VAN WICKLER: Well, they’re actually parallel careers. So I was a reservist for most of my military career. I only did three years’ active duty. And while I was a reservist, I was the superintendent of corrections. I advanced very quickly in my career. I was only a correctional officer for five years before I became a superintendent. And I’ve been a sitting superintendent for 20 years.
JAY: And just quickly, what does that mean? What kind of responsibilities do you have?
VAN WICKLER: As a superintendent, I have the overall responsibility for the operation, with statutory authority over the county department of corrections in our counties. We have 75,000 constituents, and I report to the county commissioners and then to the attorney general of the city.
JAY: And how many people in jail in your county?
VAN WICKLER: Our jail will hold up to 230 people.
JAY: And how many are there because of drugs?
VAN WICKLER: Consistently 15 percent.
JAY: So when does this click for you that this policy doesn’t make any sense?
VAN WICKLER: Well, in the evening I would teach at colleges. And I noticed that the textbook that I would teach from would always say that the war on drugs was a failed policy, and it would say all of theseâ€”provide all these different statistics which, you know, if you’re not on the cutting edge of the business, you don’t realize what’s really happening in your justice system.
And at that very same time, I had one of our legislators who approves our county budget ask me, have you ever heard of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition? I said I had not, and he gave me a DVD that LEAP had produced some years ago. And it’s only about a 15- or a 20-minute introductory DVD that was endorsed by Walter Cronkite. And I viewed that DVD and was so intrigued by what was on it, by what these retired law enforcement officers had said and the experience that they had in their careers, that I had no choice. I had to contact them and ask for a speaker to come to Keene State College, New Hampshire, do a presentation for the public and the criminal justice department.
After that, I was just obsessed with studying the issue. And what I found is that there was so much evidence everywhere on why the drug war’s a failure and should end and relatively no evidence why it should continue. And I became a speaker in 2007 and was honored to do so.
JAY: In one of the early interviews we did, we talked about the war on drugs as kind of like a moral crusade, and that many officers know it’s endless, but they see it, I guess, as a battle of good and evil, and that, you know, you just keep fighting forever, and I guess if you do good, you go to heaven. I don’t know. How do you unpack this idea that peopleâ€”how do people justify this kind of policy?
GIERACH: Well, I mean, drug addiction is a terrible problem. Drugs can be a terrible problem. They can destroy families. They can destroy homes. They can corrupt people. They can get them to turn to prostitution and crime, eventually, when they can’t afford the drugs.
But it’s also a crime for people to be shooting one another. It’s a crime to tempt some kid to go into the drug business in order to make more money to accomplish the American dream in this prohibition society that we’ve created.
And, in fact, if we had addicts who had an alternative to get the drug to which they were addicted and they could get on some kind of a legitimate maintenance program under the auspices of physicians and nurses, where they knew the commodity that they were consuming and the strength of it and they knew the risks, it would be better for the addicts’ health, we could eliminate the high price that they have to pay, so [incompr.] each one is not a crime wave, as they are now. So society would be safer, neighborhoods would be safer.
Just by legalizing drugs for addicts only, we would take the best customers of the bad guys, the gangs and the cartels, and give them a legitimate way to get the drugs to which they’re addicted. And so now we’ve taken money out of the drug business. And by taking the profit out of the drug business, we’ve eliminated the incentive for kids to do the wrong thing. We’ve taken the money out of organized crime and out of the cartel business, so there’s less violence.
JAY: But one of the reasons young people go into the drug business to make money is ’cause there’s no other way to make money. You know, if you’re talking some of these sections of downtown Baltimore, it’s not like there’s jobs there as the alternative.
GIERACH: It’s true. In this country, we’ve become a prison society. We stopped making things in America.
We need to put shop classes back in the high schools. When we have derelict buildings in Chicago right now, we hire a contractor to go in with a bulldozer to knock down the building. And yet the kids who are in the drug business don’t have a minimum wage job, even. We should forget the bulldozer, forget hiring the contractor, and buy the kid a hammer and a saw and a screwdriver, tell him to take down the building. We should say some of these buildings are preservable, and we should get together with Habitat for Humanity and teach the kids in the shop classes how to rehab a house, and not pay them when they’re in school, but then, when they go to work on the house, pay them a minimum wage. Instead of the money going to the contractor, pay it to the kids. Let them see they’re improving their own neighborhood.
VAN WICKLER: Well, and, by national policy, we’re investing more money in corrections than we are in education. And if that’s what we’re investing in, what do we expect for a dividend?
JAY: Yeah. There’s in Baltimore a lot of young people involved in this campaign against what they call the school-to-prison pipeline. I mean, if you don’tâ€”so it’s not just about legalization, isn’t it? The solution needs to deal with poverty and some of the associated issues.
VAN WICKLER: Well, certainly. I mean, it’sâ€”you know, that’s the biggest part of the problem. Once we end this failed policy, then we have to work on the addiction. The primary focal point here is that this is a health issue and not a crime issue. That’s the way it really needs to be treated. Then there’s education and all of these other things that need to take place and can happen because you would be saving billions of dollars and not wasting those billions of dollars, and those dollars could be diverted and invested into good returns rather than investing in prisons.
JAY: Now, this is all so rational that I don’t quite get the counterargument. I mean, I’ve seen the debates, we’ve had debates on The Real News. The idea that the current policy failsâ€”almost everybody knows that it’s failing.
JAY: So how do you unpack this? Like, it seems almost immovable in terms of public opinion and all the politicians, with very, very few exceptions, right across the spectrum, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans.
GIERACH: Well, you see, what is changing is that the people themselves for a long time have realized that the war on drugs doesn’t work.
But it has another price. The price is that it aggravates so many crises. The problems with guns is worse, gangs, crime, prisons, taxes, deficits, AIDS, health care, trade imbalance, corruption, no money for schools, job programs, the funding of terrorism, the corruption of the kids, to tell them, forget the golden rule, you’re going to jail forever unless you tell me who sold you these drugs. All of these crises made worse by the war on drugs come with a price tag. And when you put all the price tags together, it doesn’t matter where you go in America, on a national scale, a state scale, or a local scale, government can’t pay the bills. So, ironically, the hope isâ€”in the future, for the end of the drug war and a return to sanity, is the fact that we cause ourselves so many problems that we can’t afford, that we’re being forced to look at some policy other than drug prohibition.
JAY: Okay. Now, you say this to police officers, you say this to state prosecutors who are involved in enforcing the laws. How do they answer you? I mean, how do they refute what you’re saying?
GIERACH: Well, they don’t refute it. They say that this is job protection. I ask a friend who’s a correctional officer, I said, “What do you think of the war on drugs?” He said, “Job protection.”
We have 10,000 inmates in Cook County. We have 50,000 inmates in Illinois. California has 171,000 inmates. Texas and Florida have huge, 100,000-plus inmates. Can’t pay the bill. You can’t do anything worse with the public dollar than invest it in prisons where you hire people to watch other people do nothing. We can either have safe streets or drug prohibition in America, but we can’t have both.
JAY: Andâ€”sorry. Go ahead.
VAN WICKLER: I was just going to say that, you know, one ofâ€”some of the things that the American public doesn’t understand is, you know, our criminal justice system has a filtration system, and studies tell us that of 1,000 serious crimes that are committed, only 18 of those people will end up in jail. Again, 1,000 serious crimes, 18 end up in jail. Yet we have the largest prison system on the planet and violent crime in the United States is at a 30-year low. Now, when you consider the filter of only 18 going to jail and that violent crime is at a 30-year low, and you consider the fact that we haveâ€”that’sâ€”distracted meâ€”all of these peopleâ€”.
JAY: Just so you know, a button fell off your jacket [crosstalk] on the floor.
GIERACH: It’s a sign of things to change.
JAY: But we’re going to ignore it and keep goingâ€”maybe somebody was listening to you.
VAN WICKLER: So we have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s inmates, even with that filtration system. Now, 20 percent of the people that are in this correctional system get $80 billion worth of attention.
JAY: That’s somebody making $80 billion.
VAN WICKLER: Eighty billion dollars for 20 percent of the peopleâ€”.
JAY: So isâ€”I mean, the bottom line here is there’s just too much vested interest in the way it is.
VAN WICKLER: And it’s designed to be very difficult to get to jail. So it is very, very biased. It is very, very expensive. And it just begs a lot of questions that demand answers from the American public.
JAY: I mean, during this whole deficit debate that’s going on nationally, at the state level, at city levels, nobody argues this just as a straight economic argument.
GIERACH: Well, it is an economic problem. It’s a moral problem. It’s a social problem. It’s affecting life in every strata of America, where the land of the free has become the prison capital of the world with the highest rate of incarceration anywhere.
And life is becoming unlivable, not only in the United States, but in Mexico, where they’ve got 60,000 people killed under the administration of Felipe CalderÃ³n as the United States puts in place Plan Mexico, duplicating Plan Colombiaâ€”$400 million a year. The news agencies get $400 million a year in anti-drug advertising funds. Clinton says we have so much crime, we need to hire 100,000 police officers. We build prisons to the point where it’s the fastest-growing housing in the 1990s.
We end up with more money going into drug treatment, but theâ€”and drug treatment is better than law enforcement, but the weakness of drug treatment is it’s easier to make a new addict than to cure an old one, and therefore, demand reduction is not going to be a solution so long as that remains the fact.
We end up putting in drug courts, so we got to hire more judges, more public defenders, more states attorneys, more probation officers, parole officers, somebody to build the prisons, the subcontractors, the people who are doing the transporting.
We have to go spray the drugs in Colombia. We’re buying the helicopters. We’re buying the herbicide.
We have law enforcement that gets half the money locally, and half goes to the Feds when we seize the drug money. So law enforcement is living off the money. Just as the drug cartels are living off of prohibition, so are the police and law enforcement.
And then, if you’re a responsible chief of police and you’re trying to figure out, how do I pay my police budget, or you’re the mayor or the alderman or the city councilman, you need the money to be able to pay, because you have so many crime problems because you have prohibition.
And instead of trying to change the origin of the problem, prohibition just spews these problems and crises into the tub until it overflows. Instead of turning off the prohibition knob that’s filling the tub, instead we keep taking bucketful, bucketful, donating more and more money into this crazy war on drugs.
VAN WICKLER: And it would be wrong to not talk about the discriminatory aspect of it. Studies show us that of all the people that use drugs, 72 percent of those people are white, 13 percent are black. Yet when you look at the prison system, the federal prison system, those that are there for drug crimes, 60 percent of them are black. So we consider it to be a form of institutionalized racism.
JAY: Thanks for joining us.
VAN WICKLER: Paul, thank you.
JAY: We’re going to continue our discussion with members of LEAP. Please join us for that on The Real News Network.
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