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Throw in towel on unwinnable war on drugs

When a young mother is killed trying to protect her 2-year-old son from stray bullets, then it is easy to understand why some of us are calling for the National Guard to help curb the violence.

So far, police haven’t said what motivated two armed men to storm into a barbershop in Sacramento, CA with guns blazing. The gunmen injured six people and killed Monique Nelson, as she tried to strap her son into a car seat and escape the violence.

But I’m willing to bet that drugs or gangs or both were involved.

This is the kind of tragedy that makes James Gierach’s blood boil. For decades, Gierach has been on a crusade to end the nation’s failed drug war.

“Nearly any crisis you can name in America is made worse by the war on drugs: gangs, drugs, prison, AIDS, guns, crime, taxes and deficits,” Gierach argues.

“The reason that this drug war has lasted for 40 years is because both the good guys and the bad guys are in favor of it,” he said.

“The bad guys are in favor of prohibition because the only place you can get it is from them. And the good guys are protecting the growing prisons and subcontractors.

“You have to hire more judges, prosecutors, more probation officers, more parole officers, more drug counselors, and more drug testing labs,” Gierach continued, ticking off a long list of industries that benefit from the criminalization of drugs.

“So what we end up with are the good guys riding the drug war gravy train same as the bad guys,” he said.

After years of crying in the wilderness, Gierach believes he may finally be making some inroads.

Gierach, a lawyer, is a board member for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition or LEAP. The organization was founded by five law enforcement officers in 2002, and now has 35,000 supporters worldwide.

On Tuesday, Gierach stopped by my office with Maria Lucia Karam, a retired Brazilian Judge who is visiting Chicago.

Karam is also on LEAP’s board. She said she has seen the devastating impact of drug prohibition laws in her own country

For instance, in an effort to rid Rio’s slums (called “favelas”) of drug traffickers, two weeks ago Brazil’s governor called in the military. As a result, about 50 people were killed in violent skirmishes, according to Karam.

“People that live there were submitted to the violence of drug traffickers. Now the people who are there are submitted to the violence of tanks and soldiers with machine guns,” she said.

During her 18 years on the bench, Karam said she did not lock up people who used drugs because she believed to do so would have violated the country’s constitution.

“In a Democratic constitution, they assure you of freedom to do everything unless you harm the rights of others, and having drugs for personal use is something that harms only the person who has the substance,” she explained.

She now advocates for the legalization of the production, supply and consumption of all drugs.

“Prohibition causes much more harm than the drugs themselves,” Karam argues. “In an illegal market, people need to use violence to develop their business. So prohibition produces violence,” she said.

“More and more people are going to prison because of these activities. But the growth of the prison population is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that people are dying because of the violence. “

So while calling out the military to end drug- and gang-related violence might sound like a good idea, Karam argues that as with any war, there has to be an identified enemy.

“Not only do the people who committed the offense become the enemy, but the people that look like the people who are committing the offense,” Karam said.

Tragically, the young mother who lost her life in Sacramento was collateral damage in a war that America cannot win.

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