James Gierach is not a household name. He’s running for governor in the Democratic primary and not even political junkies know him. One forum for gubernatorial candidates forgot to invite him. Some news stories lump him in on the fringe with the LaRouchie candidate, the kiss of death. In a January Tribune voter survey, his support was less than the poll’s 3 percent margin of error.

But the day after Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders called for a study of the effects of legalizing drugs, the telephone line in Gierach’s Oak Lawn law office was jammed with requests for interviews and Gierach was beaming with delight. His media strategy consists largely of a hope that every time there’s a story about drugs, crime, prisons, or taxes, a little message will flash in the minds of voters: “Gierach means drug reform.”

“That’s my ace in the hole,” he said. “If the public agrees with that notion I will have advertising every day on every TV and radio station and every newspaper from now until the election because of the problems we’re causing with the drug policy in place.”

Changing course on drugs is a position few politicians want to touch. It’s safer to say “I’m against drugs,” lament the decline of America, and call for more police and the execution of drug kingpins. Liberals also make a pitch for more educational and treatment programs. President Clinton put his hands over his ears when Elders mentioned legalization. But Gierach wants to open voters’ ears to a discussion of drug policy reform; he hopes to persuade voters that drug reform is the key to solving Illinois’ chronic problems with the state budget, education, crime, and much, much more.

Gierach wants to bring Illinois’ drug strategy in line with the policies in much of Western Europe. Instead of a “war on drugs,” many governments there focus on reducing the harm from drugs, treating drug use as more of a public health and social problem than an issue of law enforcement. Profits drive the drug trade, Gierach argues, and the war on drugs makes that trade more costly and deadly. If you stop the trade, he contends, you dry up the profits.

Gierach would take away the drug dealers’ best customers by making drugs available to addicts under medical supervision, while attempting to wean them from drug use through treatment programs. He would stop putting people in jail for any marijuana violation or for the small-scale use or sale of harder drugs like cocaine and heroin. But he would not legalize any of these drugs.

Gierach is 49; he’s trim and personable, likes to wisecrack, and brings an odd background to his drug reform crusade. As an assistant Cook County state’s attorney in the early 1970s, he thought drug cases deserved maximum penalties. He often declined to handle them, on the curious grounds that it was unfair to subject random suspects to a prosecutor so much more hard-line than his colleagues.

Yet it was back then that the seeds of cynicism about Illinois drug policy were sown. “You’d see the same people all the time, and they were basically derelicts and didn’t bother anybody. They were addicts. You’d dispose of a case one day, they were out on bond, and they’d be back the next week. They were stealing and using drugs but otherwise they weren’t bothering anybody.” The law enforcement system ought to concentrate on the violent offenders, he thought, whether drugs were involved or not.

The son of a circuit court judge, Gierach says he’s never indulged in illegal drugs and avoids aspirin as much as possible. In his youth he scornfully kept his distance from the “hippies” and campus politicos among whom pot smoking and dropping acid were commonplace. He stuck to Greek Row beer blasts.

He solemnly declares that “we’re not supposed to artificially infuse stimulants and depressants in our bodies. God didn’t make us garbage containers for drugs.” Yet he zestfully consumes caffeine, tobacco, chocolate, and alcohol, the legal drugs of our culture. When asked why some of God’s plants, like the cacao bean and fermented grape, should be acceptable but others, like the coca leaf or marijuana bud, should not, he philosophizes, “We need to learn to live in peace with all of them again. That’s all they are is God’s plants.”

The ranks of drug reformers have spread far beyond liberals, civil libertarians, and pot smokers who resent having their indulgence treated as a major crime. Now the call for drastic reform comes from federal judges, law enforcement agents, big city mayors from Baltimore to San Francisco, and such conservative thinkers as Milton Friedman, William Buckley, and former secretary of state George Shultz. But the popular movement for drug law reform is fledgling at best, and extremely rare is the candidate like Gierach who not only talks about reform but makes it the centerpiece of his campaign.

Gierach had not previously demonstrated a passion for social reform. His interest in politics did start early, by his account. As a grade school student he read somewhere that the most common professions of members of Congress were farming and law. “I said to myself, ‘It would be nice to go to Congress someday,'” he recalled. “‘I’m not going to be a farmer. So I’ll be a lawyer.’ I really decided in grade school to be a lawyer.”

His father was an attorney who helped organize a nonpartisan civic group in Oak Lawn. Gierach remembers vividly “the smoke-filled basement with all the folding chairs set up, people coming and drinking coffee and smoking stogies. It was people who cared about what was happening.”

But once at Michigan State University, he cared only about his fraternity, Theta Chi. “It was the first time I was not subject to the reins of home, and I did goof around some,” he recalled. “It was my first opportunity to have the freedom to be bad, and I felt like I was breaking all the rules when I had a beer at 18.” He’d skip classes, then cram all night, and occasionally sleep through exams despite orders to pledges to wake him up. After buckling down his senior year in order to get into law school, he graduated in 1966 with a C-plus average. He’d been president of his fraternity and his one passion was making it the best–in grades, sports, and social life.

During those years the student movement was erupting. On most campuses there was a growing hip, bohemian culture linked to art and politics. Gierach was not a part of it. “It was fairly early in the Vietnam war, and there were hippies out there in sandals and beards and long hair and a little subculture that was boring to me,” he said. Grateful for his student deferment, he assiduously avoided antiwar protests.

He also assiduously avoided drugs. Drugs were part of just two scenes at Michigan State. “One was the pot and the kids with the long hair sitting in coffee shops,” he said. “I never spent one minute there. The other thing was kids taking exams using Benzedrine, bennies. I never took a pill. I drank coffee and I smoked cigarettes. I have never even been in a room to my knowledge where there was marijuana,” although he thinks he may have smelled smoke from someone consuming medically prescribed marijuana at an international drug policy conference. Partly he’s simply fearful: he thinks he has “an addictive personality,” and his two grandfathers were alcoholics. “When I would drink on an experimental basis in college, sometimes to excess,” he said, “I used to fear, ‘Is this the can of beer or drink that will make me an alcoholic?'”

As he was studying for the bar at DePaul University, he read a headline about the upcoming state constitutional convention in 1969. He thought, “What a great way to start a legal career, writing Illinois’ constitution!” In a wide-open nonpartisan race he carried his traditionally Republican district to become Con-Con’s youngest delegate.

But his taste for electoral politics soon soured. Every race he considered promised entrenched Republican opposition and little support from the Democratic Organization. He remembers showing up at a Democratic slate-making session. Powerful committeeman Michael Madigan, the current house majority leader, gave him a chilly greeting: “Jim, what are you doing here?” Gierach says he explained he’d decided to run for Congress, and Madigan responded, “‘Why didn’t you call? It’s been promised.’ I said, ‘Bad timing,’ turned around, and left.”

Even so, Gierach remained close to the organization. He got a job working for State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan. Although he condemns Hanrahan’s 1969 raid on the Black Panther Party headquarters in which two party leaders were killed, he thinks Hanrahan was a good prosecutor. Hanrahan, he claims, made violent crimes his office’s priority and was willing to indict on reduced charges in order to obtain quick convictions and avoid clogging the courts.

Later Gierach served as Oak Lawn’s village prosecutor for 14 years and simultaneously as prosecutor in the village of Worth for 10. He also maintained a private practice. Provoked by headlines and crime statistics, he dwelled increasingly on drug issues, and when State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley was elected mayor in 1989 Gierach wanted to succeed him and change the office’s priorities.

“I thought we needed an economic attack on the drug problem to stem crime, that nothing else would touch it,” he said. “I had the belief from simply synthesizing headlines that it was the economics that drove the drug business, and that the solution to the problem would have to be the economic and medical approach.”

Somewhat naively he began a personal campaign for the job. “I made the rounds, contacting the politicians, the committeemen, then-mayor Sawyer’s office. The mayor’s people said, ‘Certainly, who are you coming with?’ ‘I’m coming alone,’ I said. ‘We’ll get back to you,’ they said.” They never did.

In 1991 he took part in a four-way primary for state’s attorney. He picked up endorsements from the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization and from south- and west-side aldermen such as Larry Bloom and John Steele; but a week before the election a poll showed only 1 percent of the voters supported him. Then commodities trader Richard Dennis, a strong advocate of drug legalization, contributed $ 75,000, permitting Gierach to get on television. He ended up with 14 percent of the vote.

Media adviser Norton Kay thought Gierach cut a good figure as a candidate but received little press coverage. “The nature of the message was the most difficult part,” Kay said.

Yet it was the message–drug policy reform–that motivated Gierach. “It was [also] the crime, the deficits, the prisons, the AIDS, the health care crises,” he said. “It was headline after headline of little kids being shot because they’re selling drugs in the wrong neighborhood. It was guns galore. It was the ridiculous manner in which the state’s attorney’s office was conducting its business [clogging up the courts with drug cases]. It was the ineffective response of Republicans and Democrats.”

After his defeat, Gierach did not begin raising money for another political campaign. Instead, he sent letters, opinion pieces, and proposals for articles on drug reform to dozens of newspapers and magazines. He solicited support from countless high-profile individuals in private business, law, politics, academia, and other fields for a not-for-profit drug reform organization to be called the Drug Corner. Virtually everybody turned him down.

Gierach argues that drug policy reform is essential for government to deal with a wide range of problems. Gangs? Much of their income is from dealing drugs. Guns? Drug money pays for guns. Crime? Dealers battle with each other and addicts steal to pay for their habits. Taxes? More and more money goes for cops and prisons. Schools? Mounting public-safety costs lead government to shortchange education. Health care? See above. Too much of Medicaid goes to pay for the violent effects of guns, crime, and gangs. AIDS? About a third of all AIDS cases can be attributed directly or indirectly (partners and children) to the use of contaminated needles by drug abusers. Corruption? There’s enough money in the drug trade to tempt police, prison guards, and even court officials.

Since 1980 Illinois’s prison population has grown by more than 135 percent to about 29,000, and authorities expect it to rise to about 40,000 by the end of the decade. Over the last 15 years Illinois has constructed 15 new prisons, and more are in the pipeline. Spending on criminal justice in Illinois has outstripped inflation; it hasn’t grown as fast as the prison population, but that’s partly because Illinois has built prisons at the expense of other law enforcement needs. Illinois now spends about $325 million a year just to operate its prisons.

Drug convictions, which have increased more than eightfold in the last ten years, account for most of the rapid growth of the prison population. In the early to mid-80s inmates convicted of drug offenses made up only about 3 percent of the prison population, in 1992 more than 25 percent.

At the national level, President Bush spent $45 billion on the drug war, more than double in four years what President Reagan had spent in eight. President Clinton’s fiscal 1994 budget called for $13 billion in drug programs, up 7 percent from ’93. The states spend an estimated $18 billion a year to fight drugs, plus $20 billion a year on prison construction, much of it driven by drug arrests.

The drug war probably hasn’t accomplished much. Casual drug use, especially of cocaine, has dropped significantly since the early 80s, but most of that decline preceded the tidal wave of arrests, convictions, and expenditures. It reflected a cultural change among whites, who, according to government surveys are more likely to use illegal drugs than blacks. Yet cocaine and heroin abuse among hard-core drug abusers in the inner city has stabilized at a level higher than it was at before the war on drugs began. Many critics, including Gierach, think there is a causal relationship: the drug war has actually made matters worse.

Since money drives the criminal drug trade, Gierach thinks society could shortcircuit the trade by providing drugs to addicts. A drug user could be certified as an addict and prescribed drugs under a physician’s supervision. The drugs would be supplied through seizures from large dealers, after drug labs tested them for purity. Addicts would not have to pay, so they would not have to steal to keep up their habits, but they would have to enter a drug abuse treatment program.

Because Gierach’s plan is middle-ground, because it does not legalize any drugs, it is likely to produce less dramatic effects than he claims. The plan needs finetuning; details remain to be fleshed out.

One problem will be defining who’s an addict. “If we make regulations so stringent that no one is coming to the clinic, then the rules are too tight,” Gierach said. “If we end up with people coming who are not addicted then the rules are too loose.” The vast majority of cocaine and even heroin users are not addicts, however. If casual users were caught by the law enforcement net, they would be referred to education and rehabilitation programs. An illegal market would be perpetuated, but a much smaller one.

Gierach advocates the middle ground because he thinks legalization is politically “unacceptable and unattainable.” He also worries that full-scale legalization might lead to greater drug use.

Yet he believes “there’s no policy you could conceive that is worse than the drug policy we have in place. It encourages and causes the very things we’re trying to prevent . . . . If my policy is not as effective as I think it will be, that’s not an indication we need to return to more law enforcement but an indication that the pendulum needs to swing further towards an economic solution.”

Something closer to legalization?


Gierach wants marijuana legally available for medical purposes, such as the treatment of glaucoma or relief of nausea after chemotherapy. “I don’t favor making marijuana legal so that you can go to the store to buy it,” he said. “But I don’t want to send anybody to jail for marijuana only–buying, selling, collecting. I think there’s been long enough and great enough experience with marijuana that the public realizes this is not something we have to be hysterically fearful about.”

Then why not make it legal, so the state can tax and regulate it?

“Because I really do intend to be elected,” he said with a wide grin.

Wouldn’t his proposal lead police to stop making marijuana arrests? “It may have that impact,” he said. “In many European countries where we think marijuana is lawful it’s unlawful, but police don’t make arrests. I think we’d be better off. We don’t accomplish anything by arresting people who choose to use marijuana. We don’t change their habits. We don’t stop crime. We don’t wisely spend limited public funds. There’s absolutely nothing good that comes of our present policies on marijuana.”

Gierach would have the police continue to go after dealers. But petty dealers would be steered into rehab programs. Only the big dealers, or the ones guilty of violent crimes, would be jailed. Gierach said, “I’m afraid that we will not have room in our prisons for the average mope using or selling drugs.”

At the Department of Children and Family Services Gierach would create special “voluntary adjuncts”–friends, neighbors, relatives, ministers, or coaches of addicts to give them support and monitor their behavior. He would create work programs for addicts and criminals on probation, such as tearing down (or maybe rehabbing) abandoned housing in the city.

On its own, Springfield could not enact Gierach’s key policy of providing drugs to addicts under a doctor’s supervision. Federal policies would have to change. But he thinks his election would change the national debate. “If I’m elected governor,” Gierach said, “I intend to be on President Clinton’s lap the day after the election. I’d hope to show that you can talk sense to the American people.”

Ultimately Gierach doesn’t see drug transactions as victimless crimes, since addicts do harm themselves. “But people have the right to do stupid things, so long as they’re principally affecting themselves,” he said. “Our priority on prosecuting drug users with the threat of jail and law enforcement is a hopeless endeavor. The worst part of it is, it’s crippling our ability to deal with violent crime, and it’s causing crime-turf war crime, addict crime. . . . I keep waiting for a drug case where the dealer stuffs the drug down the buyer’s throat. When that case comes along, I want to talk about life imprisonment. But it’s in fact a willing buyer of drugs, willingly ingesting drugs. But because of public fear that everyone is going to be eating drugs, particularly their children, they’re willing to try to lock up millions of drug-consuming Americans.”

Gierach acknowledges that people use drugs for two quite different reasons: to seek a pleasurable high and to escape painful reality. “In some parts of our community with abject poverty, hopelessness, no jobs, no skills, no future, drugs provide relief from the realities of life,” he said. “Some members of our community use drugs just as another stimulant and plaything, as we use alcohol.”

The problem for the United States–and for drug policy reform–is that social and economic inequality is significantly greater here than in other industrialized nations. The most consistent finding from 30 years of research, reports criminologist Elliott Currie in his recent book, Reckoning: Drugs, the Cities and the American Future, is that hard-core drug abuse is overwhelmingly associated with social deprivation, especially a lack of opportunity for decently paid work. While it is clear that heavy drug use is likely to intensify criminal activity, most new addicts had already started on a career of criminal activity. In some communities, a subculture of violence embracing both hard drugs and crime has become so encompassing it is hard for anyone living there to escape it, Currie argues.

While Currie opposes “free-market legalization” of drugs, he believes in reducing the role of police and prisons in combating them. But he rejects the “medical model” of drug use as a disease and argues that “simply providing drugs more easily to people enmeshed in the drug culture of the cities is not likely to cut the deep social roots of addict crime.” Only increasing economic opportunity and reducing inequality will ultimately reduce drugs and drug-related crime problems.

Gierach has a few ideas for tackling this social side. If his proposals are inadequate to the task, none of the competition offers anything more ambitious. Like gubernatorial candidate Dawn Clark Netsch, Gierach favors an increase in the state income tax to permit Illinois to fund half the cost of public education, as the constitution Gierach–and also Netsch–helped write requires (now it provides 33 percent), and to provide real estate tax relief. But he would continue to assess the income tax at a flat rate, rather than make it progressive.

He favors welfare reform on the principle that “no one gets something for nothing.” Anyone who gets public income support, even the unemployment compensation that workers help finance through their own payroll taxes, would be required to do some work. But he has no clear plan for creating jobs. Mainly he would “start spending public funds wisely and not on things that aren’t constructive, as we’ve been doing with the war on drugs, prison construction, and a blank check approach to law enforcement.” Beyond putting criminals on probation to work tearing down abandoned buildings, his job program consists of his reluctantly embracing casino gambling for Chicago.

Gierach has floated a few other ideas. For example, he’d focus on the drinking privilege rather than the driving privilege, by issuing convicted drunk drivers easily identified driver’s licenses. Bars couldn’t serve them–but then, few bars check driver’s licenses. But he refuses to join the chorus for new gun control laws, such as a ban on assault weapons. He says that guns legally classified as assault weapons are rarely used in crimes despite their notoriety, and in a criminal’s hands almost any gun is an “assault weapon.” Take the profits out of drugs, he argues, and young criminals and gangbangers couldn’t buy so many guns.

Gierach’s drug reform issue has yet to engage his opponents, who have had little to say on the subject. That’s largely because they see him as an underfunded, marginal candidate. But he does have some surprising supporters. John Flood, president of the Combined Counties Police Association, said, “His policies towards drug reform are an absolute necessity. He might be ten years before his time politically, but if the United States doesn’t change its drug policy it will devastate the criminal justice system. The United States has to change its policy on drugs to treat it as a medical and educational problem, rather than a criminal problem. Now crime is the largest problem the country has, and it’s all caused by the drug policy. Politicians continue to advocate a drug policy that causes more harm than Prohibition ever did.”

Flood asserted that if Gierach’s policies were put into effect, “you’d probably reduce the crime rate in Illinois by 50 percent overnight, probably the murder rate in Chicago by 50 percent. If someone went to the Netherlands and said, ‘Let’s criminalize drugs,’ they’d say, ‘You’re nuts.’ They have it controlled, and treat it as a medical problem.”

Former Cook County jail warden Richard English supports much of Gierach’s program. Circuit Court Judge Ronald Himel, who served three years and three months as a narcotics court judge, believes it would be inappropriate to comment on any specific candidate or legislative proposal. But he did observe, “Whatever we’re doing now, if you call it a war on drugs we’re losing. The money and profit generated from the sale and distribution of drugs fuels most of the major crime in our city. I just know that what’s going on now is not the answer.”

Gierach’s so long a shot that his ideas risk going unheard or succumbing to caricature–as in, he’s for “legalizing” drugs or for “giving up” the fight. Denied many platforms, he leaps at any opportunity to insert himself in the mass media’s fleeting lights, from showing up at a gang summit (where he pitched his plan to undermine gang drug profits) to dealing cards at a Ronald McDonald’s benefit (to show he’s for casino gambling). He risks getting tagged a zealot or Johnny One-Note, but that doesn’t seem to bother him.

“If the one thing I can solve with drug policy reform is an end to the crises of drugs, guns, gangs, crime, prisons, taxes, deficits, AIDS, health care, trade imbalance, no money for schools, no money for job programs,” he said, “I’ll be satisfied with that one issue.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.