Judge John Kane Jr. can remember the day his mind changed about the War on Drugs. It was the late 1980s. Kane was on the bench listening to arguments in a drug conspiracy case involving almost 20 defendants. Among them were a grandfather, his sons and his 17-year-old granddaughter.
One of the sons was serving time in the Colorado State Penitentiary and smuggling heroin into the prison with the help of his family.
"They had corrupted at least one prison guard," Kane said. Kane was repulsed as he listened to the story of how the family had used the girl in the case. She hid the heroin in her body, went to the bathroom when she was inside and put it in her mouth. She would kiss her uncle on the mouth and the drugs would be exchanged.
As Kane listened, horrified, he scanned the audience and saw three children younger than 10 years old who were members of the family on trial.
"They were all looking at me with so much hostility because of what I was doing to their family," Kane said. "When it came time for sentencing, I saw all the repeat offenses, and I realized that prison sentences were not doing any good. There was no end to it. That's when I had my Saul on the way to Damascus moment, my epiphany, and I started researching the matter."
Kane now serves as a senior judge with the U.S. District Court in Denver and has bec--ome an outspoken advocate for changes in the nation's drug policies.
He will speak at 5 p.m. tonight about the drug war's effects on the criminal justice system, based on his personal experience.
What faced him when he started his research was a wall of misinformation about drug use, he said. "In the statistics, there was no differentiation between addiction and experimentation.
"All kinds of people experiment with drugs, primarily adolescents, and most of them do not develop into addicts. Yet the law makes no distinction. There is this mythology out there that you do one snort of heroin, and you're an addict. It's simply not true. There are more highly addictive drugs that are legal."
In Kane's opinion, the criminal justice system is clogged and almost paralyzed with a growing number of petty drug cases.
Kane advocates for treating drug abuse as a public health issue rather than a criminal one.
Prosecution and severe criminal penalties should be maintained for the illegal manufacture, distribution and importing of drugs, but the use of drugs should be decriminalized.
"We're putting people in jail for using this stuff, and it's costing us in two ways," Kane said. "These are essentially nonviolent people, and we are filling up our jails with them while police don't have time to focus on pedophiles or violent crime. It's a question of priorities."
During a sentencing hearing of a mid-level drug dealer, Kane told the man, "What bothers me is that you are getting these young people to sell for you."
The dealer responded that for every street dealer who's arrested, he had five people who wanted the job.
"When you are dealing with that kind of distribution," Kane said, "the fact that drugs are illegal drives up the price and makes selling them all the more inviting."
Kane said examination and change of drug laws will be slow because the government has a vested interest in the War on Drugs.
"They are spending in excess of $50 billion a year on this," Kane said. "They have employees and cars and the equipment. I don't think they will change."
Opinion polls show that 70 percent of people think the War on Drugs is a failure, but they don't know what to do about it, Kane said. "As long as it remains a matter of behavior for the economically disadvantaged. If as many children of the upper- and upper-middle-class power base were sent to prison, the attitude would change. The drug war would end tomorrow."
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