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April 20, 2006 - Buffalo News (NY)

Giambra Advocates Legalizing Drugs

By Robert J. McCarthy and T.J. Pignataro, News Staff Reporters

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Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra said Wednesday that a rash of drug-related killings in Buffalo over the past few days should prompt a serious discussion about legalizing some narcotics.

Giambra noted that the alleged killer of Sister Karen Klimczak confessed that he was high on crack cocaine when he committed the murder on Friday, while drugs are thought to be involved in other recent slayings. Drugs also are listed as the cause of many of Buffalo's 56 homicides last year, according to city police.

Any course other than some type of legalization amounts to "pretending" that current anti-drug efforts are working, Giambra said.

"Until we get real about it, this problem is going to continue to build on the streets of urban America," he said. "We have to talk about legalization."

Area law enforcement and narcotics detectives battling drugs day in and day out were flabbergasted on learning of the county executive's comments.

"He ought to take a ride around the streets," said Lt. Joseph Leo, an 11-year veteran in the Lackawanna Police narcotics unit. Leo said drugs "alter the mind" of the user, creating addictions that feed crime and lead to violence. Legalized or not, that wouldn't change.

"What's going on out there is that people can't afford their habit, so all they're doing is stealing and robbing from family and friends or whoever gets in their way," he said. "People can't afford what it costs to buy a bag of crack . . . so, for $10 the guy goes nuts."

Buffalo Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson also is against legalizing narcotics. "Allowing for narcotic intoxicants to get further entangled in our society is not a positive and is not going to bode well for anybody," Gipson said. "It just has catastrophic potentialities."

Lt. Thomas Lyon of the Buffalo narcotics and vice unit says his detectives see the tragedies drugs wreak on families and neighborhoods all the time. 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."

Some national figures like conservative commentator William F. Buckley and former Secretary of State George Schultz have raised the issue of legalization, while U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin of Buffalo also has publicly discussed it. But Giambra said Wednesday he believes he is the first local elected official to raise the possibility.

"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," he 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."

Leo attributes much of the problems to judicial leniency at sentencing time, Gov. George E. Pataki's recent rollback of the state's strict "Rockefeller Drug Laws," and underfunding police narcotics enforcement.

Despite those limitations, Lackawanna has realized its share of success in the "War on Drugs," Leo said. Parts of the city used to be "like a candy store" for drugs, and with it came crime, he said. That's changed dramatically in recent years with tough crackdowns on dealers, users and houses peddling drugs.

"It's a lot better than it ever was out here," Leo said.

The county executive offered no specifics on a plan to legalize drugs. He also did not say what drugs should be afforded noncriminal status, or how any new laws should be enforced.

But he did say he will continue to discuss the situation to stimulate some kind of new thinking. "I'm just trying to stimulate a different kind of discussion to get people away from pretending," Giambra said.

E-mail Robert J. McCarthy at and T.J. Pignataro at

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