As crusades go, Judge James P. Gray's fight to legalize drugs has been a long and lonely one.
His advocation of treatment instead of jail time for drug offenders has gained some converts, but Gray's views remain largely on the outskirts of acceptability. Some of his closest friends disagree with his opinions, and his most vicious opponents accuse him of being a biased, negative role model.
But Gray is dogged in his long-held belief that legalization is the only way to solve what he says is an increasingly unsuccessful war on drugs. He lectures at least once a month on his views, this week to a county bar association, next month to a group of Alaskan Libertarians.
In the latest chapter of the conservative judge's uphill struggle, Gray has become a Libertarian and announced Wednesday that he is running for the U.S. Senate.
The odds of unseating Democrat Barbara Boxer in next year's election are long, but the opportunity to show the major parties that his message resonates with voters is victory enough for him.
"Every single vote I get will legitimately be seen in favor of repealing drug prohibition," said Gray, 58, the day before announcing his candidacy at the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana.
"The other side is going to want to get my votes, and to do that they'll have to change their drug policy. If that happens, I'll have won."
Gray is hoping to get up to 15% of the vote, a longshot for a third-party candidate. Gray's campaign slogan targets the apprehension that mainstream voters might feel: "This time, it matters."
A lifelong Republican, Gray said he switched parties this year because the Libertarian message of greater individual freedoms better aligns with his own.
Libertarians in California are looking to Gray's candidacy to bring legitimacy and an improved turnout for the party, which traditionally draws between 1% and 2% of the vote in U.S. Senate races.
"He brings with him the gravitas of his position," said Mark Selzer, southern vice chairman for the California Libertarian Party. "He's going to take our party to the next level in terms of the respect people have for us."
One of Gray's longtime friends, Costa Mesa Police Chief John D. Hensley, disagrees with the judge's views but still came to Wednesday's campaign opening to lend moral support.
"He's a good man and an ethical judge, and I wish him all the best in his campaign," Hensley said. "Still, since his thinking is well outside the mainstream, he's going to have some difficulties."
That's an understatement, Boxer campaign spokesman Roy Behr said. "A huge, huge majority of voters will be opposed to that position," he said. "There is no significant support for that platform."
Gray's views have long made him the object of accusations of bias. A decade ago, his appeal for the legalization of drugs drove now-retired Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates to lash out to reporters: "What was this guy smoking? It's crazy. What kind of role model is he?"
Gray, who has taken a leave of absence from his legal duties until the campaign concludes, concedes that his stance might seem a poor message for children. But he maintains the drug problem has grown too vast to be managed by imposing morals on young people who see the rules as hypocritical.
"People of my generation used marijuana," Gray said, "and now we're putting our children in jail for using it. There's no way we can punish ourselves out of this problem."
Legalizing and taxing marijuana could net California as much as $3 billion, Gray contends, including the $1 billion the state spends each year churning low-level offenders through the legal system.
"If we were to put those people in treatment programs and jobs," he said, "we'd be a lot safer."
In the years he has been waging his own war on the war on drugs, Gray said he has learned that when battling the conventional, you can't be in a hurry, and you can't get discouraged.
A few dents at a time, he said. That's how it's done.