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A Conservative Position on Pot

Libertarian vice presidential candidate James P. Gray. Photo by Shannon Finnell.
Libertarian vice presidential candidate James P. Gray. Photo by Shannon Finnell.

The “war on drugs” — particularly on marijuana — has already played a big role in Oregon politics this year, garnering national attention during the Oregon attorney general race. Despite that attention, Libertarian vice presidential candidate James P. Gray, former presiding judge of the Superior Court of Orange County, Calif., said during a visit to EW that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are rolling out any new ideas when it comes to the failed drug war.

When it comes to weed, Gray doesn’t quite say “legalize it,” but he does favor regulating the drug like wine, and he says this as a former federal prosecutor who once held a record for largest heroin bust. He and Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson (former New Mexico governor) have endorsed Oregon’s Measure 80, the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act, which would regulate marijuana like wine and generate tax revenue.

Measure 80’s organizers say that the state of Oregon spends $61.5 million per year in law enforcement, corrections and judicial expenditures related to marijuana alone, and regulating marijuana like wine would generate more than $140 million per year in taxes — which could be put into both the general fund and drug treatment programs, while eliminating the unsavory elements related to the black market.

Gray says that years of watching his courtroom “churning out low-level drug offenders” brought him to the conclusion that the U.S. can do better than prohibition. He says that seeing a convicted rapist and robber go free with credit for time served — and a whoop of victory — was a significant moment for him.

“The reality is that the tougher you get with regard to nonviolent drug offenses, literally, the softer you get with regard to prosecution of robbery, rape, murder and everything else,” Gray says. “We only have so many resources in the criminal justice system; let’s use them to prosecute people who are causing harm to others instead of just, maybe, harming themselves.”

When it comes to other issues of safety, like keeping pot out of kids’ hands, Gray points to the relative ease in access that teens have to marijuana compared to beer. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reports that nationally, 12- to 17-year-olds find it easier to buy marijuana than beer.

Gray began speaking out against marijuana prohibition in 1992 and wrote the book Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It — A Judicial Indictment of the War on Drugs to outline his position. He says that he thought he’d make a persuasive spokesman as a clean-cut, conservative judge from a conservative county who’s never used illegal drugs. “I have no reason to do this other than the merits,” he says.

In addition to creating an unwise allocation of prison resources, Gray says, a system of prohibition has led to a decline in civil liberties, most notably under the search and seizure umbrella, since the day he graduated from law school in 1971. He says that police have an easier time searching trunks during traffic stops, for example, and “we’re in no better shape but we’ve lost civil liberties.”

Even though Gray discusses medicalized treatment of heroin addiction, needle exchanges and other health measures for drugs other than marijuana in his book, he says moving forward by changing policy on all drugs at once isn’t what he’s advocating. “Let’s start with marijuana,” he says. “Let’s see how that goes.”

According to Gray, the biggest obstacle to a more functional national drug policy is politics. “In the political world, reality is absolutely irrelevant,” he says. “We need to get away from moralizing and deal with the problem.”