Legalization: Buffalo Politician Ignites Firestorm by Using "L-Word" 4/28/06

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In comments that continue to reverberate through upstate New York, Erie County (Buffalo) Chief Executive Joel Giambra called last week for a serious discussion of legalizing drugs. The local law enforcement establishment has been biting back ever since, but Giambra has gained the support of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), one of whose founding members joined him at a press event this week.

On April 19, in remarks he said were sparked by a spate of killings in Buffalo, including the murder earlier this month of a nun by a man high on crack cocaine, Giambra said it was time to quit "pretending" that the war on drugs is working. "Until we get real about it, this problem is going to continue to build on the streets of urban America. We have to talk about legalization," he said in an interview with the Buffalo News.

"It's easy to sit back and pretend you can fix the problem, but based on the number of homicides and deaths we're seeing, the criminals are winning," Giambra said. "We need to look at what other countries are doing and see what might be more effective than doing what we're doing. I don't believe anyone looking at this nationally believes that current methods to eliminate the problem are working," Giambra added. "They have failed miserably."

Giambra's suggestion went over like a lead balloon with local drug fighters. "Allowing for narcotic intoxicants to get further entangled in our society is not a positive and is not going to bode well for anybody," said Buffalo Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gibson. "It just has catastrophic potentialities," he told the News.

"He ought to take a ride around the streets," said Lt. Joseph Leo, a member of the Lackawanna Police drug squad, adding that drugs "alter the mind" of the user. The problem, Leo said, is soft sentencing and lack of funding for drug enforcement.

Lt. Thomas Lyon, a Buffalo narcotics officer, said drugs cause tragedies and it wouldn't be any different if they were legal. "We're in the trenches every day. We see the damage the drug culture has done to neighborhoods and people," Lyon said. "Doctors, lawyers, kids, people from all walks of life who you'd never expect to see huddled up in the corner of a crack house having lost everything they ever had. Legalizing it is not the answer."

"I'm not going to dignify the efficacy of his remarks by putting it to a debate," harrumphed Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark. "It's a mindless idea to start with."

But Giambra was unbowed, telling the News he was just trying to get some innovative thinking going on drug policy. "I'm just trying to stimulate a different kind of discussion to get people away from pretending," he said.

By Monday, Giambra was pressing ahead, holding a news conference with LEAP founding member Peter Christ, a former police captain in Tonawanda. Christ, an experienced speaker on the topic, supported Giambra's call for a legalization discussion and hammered on the damage done by drug prohibition. "Al Capone wasn't created by alcohol," he said. "Al Capone was created by the prohibition of alcohol." There are problems related to drug abuse, Christ argued, and problems related to the illegality of the drug trade. "We believe that a regulated and controlled marketplace, regulated by the government, is totally preferable to an uncontrolled marketplace run by gangsters on the street," Christ said.

Christ also challenged reporters, scoffing at the way they uncritically repeat police boasts that such and such a drug bust would put "a huge dent" in the drug trade. "You've written that story over and over again," he said.

Giambra clarified that he thought that drug use was immoral, but that current drug policy wasn't working. He shrugged off attacks from law enforcement and in the media and vowed to continue to look for a better way. "I will continue to question the status quo," he vowed. "I think it's irresponsible to continue to believe we can solve this problem with the same solutions."

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Issue #433 -- 4/28/06

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