In 1992, James Gierach ran for Cook County state's attorney on a platform of addressing drugs as a medical and economic issue instead of a criminal problem—and ending the arrests of nonviolent users.
At a time when crime was rising and politicians were playing to voters' fears, it was not a winning message. Despite Gierach's background as a tough-on-crime prosecutor, he mustered just 14 percent of the vote. In 1994, he ran for governor with a similar platform, inspiring a Reader profile headlined, "Just Say OK." He was crushed again.
Almost 20 years later, Gierach is still at it, campaigning for drug policy reforms as a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. While many of his ideas remain politically unfeasible, a growing number of elected officials are seeking his counsel and sounding similar themes. And instead of being exiled to the fringes, politicians who are now willing to speak out, such as Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle, have been applauded for common sense and fiscal discipline.
"My head is bruised—I've been hitting it into the brick wall for a long time," Gierach says. "But there's no question that the issues I've talked about will eventually come to be, because we can't pay the price tags for the current policies.
"Why is the war on drugs still in place? Because the good guys and the bad guys are on the same side of the line of scrimmage. The drug cartels are in favor of prohibition because they're making money off it. The cops, the teachers, the prison wardens—they're in favor of saving society from drugs and the gravy train for their programs continues. So the thing languishes on."
It's not quite accurate to say Gierach's views haven't changed. They haven't mellowed, either. During his gubernatorial bid, Gierach was opposed to legalizing drugs because he feared it would drive up usage. Now he thinks legalization is the only way to keep it in check.
"When you prohibit something you give up the right to regulate it and control it," he says. "It doesn't matter how many people we arrest or how tough our speeches are. People are rewarded for doing something that we've made illegal. We can have safe streets or drug prohibitions, but not both."
In fact, he argues, the war on drugs "is at the heart of almost every crisis in America—guns, prisons, AIDS, taxes, dropouts, the destruction of moral values. We've got no money for economic development or schools because of it."
Gierach says he's been encouraged to hear local officials discuss decriminalizing marijuana possession, even if he doesn't think that goes far enough.
"The politics of what's happening is that we're trying to find a less expensive way to keep in place a failed policy," he says. "It doesn't change the economics of the kid who's quitting school because he can make a better life selling drugs."