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O.C. Judge, Sheriff Clash in Debate on Nation's Approach to Drug Use

Policy: Gray argues for decriminalization while Gates defends present zero-tolerance laws before grand jurors group.


ANAHEIM — Orange County Superior Court Judge James P. Gray blasted the nation's zero-tolerance drug policies as a waste of precious resources, while Sheriff Brad Gates decried any effort to legalize drugs and make marijuana available for medical purposes.

So it went Thursday during a luncheon debate when Gray, who has spent 4 1/2 years pushing for reform of drug laws, faced off with Gates, one of his harshest critics, before 50 skeptical members of the Grand Jurors Assn. of Orange County.

Gray passionately called for drug decriminalization and even offered his lukewarm support for Proposition 215, the November state ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana use for medical purposes.

But his arguments seemed to win few converts during the hourlong forum.

"When you have a judge supporting an initiative like this, I can't believe it," said Marilyn McDougal, an anti-drug educator who counsels high school students, during a question-and-answer period. "[The initiative] has more holes in it than a police target."

Gray said the initiative, which would allow the cultivation, possession and use of marijuana under a doctor's orders, is flawed in parts, but overall it would aid some people who experience chronic pain.

"It's a crime to keep people from a medication that will help them," said Gray, who as a member of a national lobbying group of scholars, doctors and politicians, has urged President Clinton to overhaul the nation's drug policy.

Gates criticized the initiative, saying it has no support from credible politicians, doctors or medical researchers. Also, the initiative would allow children to use the drug, Gates said.

"Clearly, this is bad law," Gates said. "Marijuana destroys your immune system, so I don't know why anyone with AIDS or cancer would even want to consume this product."

The two officials disagreed even more sharply over the notion of decriminalizing drugs. Gray argued the country's drug policy of "zero tolerance" is overcrowding jails, wasting precious law enforcement resources and making the drug trade one of the most lucrative businesses in the world.

"We have no legitimate expectation today that next year the drug problem will be better than it is today," said Gray, weeks after a national survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed drug use nationwide among teenagers up 105% in the last four years. "And we are going to have to do more than 'Just say no.' This problem is too complicated for that."

Even if drugs were decriminalized, the law should still hold users accountable for their actions, just as it currently does with alcohol, Gray added.

Rather than work as a societal benefit, Gates argued decriminalizing drugs would corrupt and ultimately destroy the nation. Gates then criticized the judge's presentation as overly "theoretical."

"I don't know what he just said," said Gates, who maintained, contrary to Gray, that drug use among youths in the county has decreased in the past decade. "Your comments get so convoluted that it's hard to keep focused on the real issue."

Gates and Gray, who have clashed many times publicly since the judge announced his support for drug decriminalization in 1992, shook hands and smiled after completing their remarks.

After Thursday's debate, when fewer than five people in the audience raised their hands in support of the proposed state initiative, Gray said he wasn't discouraged.

"Well, I think I made a few dents today," he said. "That's how it's done."

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