Nancy Gertner, U.S. District Court Judge

Voluntary Committee of Lawyer's Forum:

"Is the Drug War Forever?" - Selected Remarks

Boston, Massachusetts, January 29, 1998

Not criminalizing drugs doesn't mean we approve of it, anymore than not criminalizing tobacco means that we approve of cigarette smoking or not criminalizing alcohol means we approve of it. Just because something isn't criminal doesn't mean it isn't right. And yet that's the way this debate has been cast: If you are against criminalization, you are encouraging use.

Every dollar we spend on this, we take away from other kinds of programs. We have spent, and this is part of my research here, five hundred billion dollars on the war of drugs over twenty years. Five hundred billion dollars! What has it been on? Obviously it's been on police officers and fancy gadgets to stop criminals. But it's also been spent on building prisons.

. . . the fancy drug dealers, the people at the top of the spectrum, were able to negotiate their way out of charges because they had an enormous amount to tell. The higher you are at the top of the drug dealership, if there is such a thing, the more you had to trade for your sentences. The people who were getting the brunt of the mandatory sentences were the people who had nothing to trade and were the people, in fact, the most innocuous. The people who had the least culpability and those were the individuals who were the mules. The person who touched the drugs but in fact didn't control it. That person had nothing to say.

The "war" mentality makes the system worse in other ways you and I can see acutely.

The drug war relies on informants and searches of these sorts. . . . the only way the enforcement can take place is by informants which is a corrupting and difficult way for the system to operate.

I found a similar quote to describe the drug war which I want to share with you in closing: "The war against drugs provides politicians with something to say that offends nobody, requires them to do nothing difficult, allows them to postpone, perhaps indefinitely, the more urgent questions about the state of the nation's schools, housing, employment opportunities for young black men, the condition to which drug addiction speaks as a symptom not a cause. They remain safe in the knowledge that they might as well be denouncing Satan and so they can direct the voices of prerecorded blame at metaphors and apparitions, wars and battles."

The war on drugs becomes a perfect war for people who would rather not fight. A war on which politicians who stands fearlessly on the side of good, the true, and the beautiful need do nothing else but strike noble poses as protectors of the people and defenders of the public trust.

We can't let that continue. Thank you.