Back in my pre-law existence once of the places I worked as a reporter was at the Los Angeles Times community newspaper The Daily Pilot, which covers the areas of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa. It’s a small, scrappy paper that has the virtues and limitations of any small newspaper.

This morning it gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling to see, while I’m having my coffee, that the Daily Pilot has printed an op-ed by Judge James P. Gray, the author of the great book “Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It — A Judicial Indictment Of  The War On Drugs.”

In his Daily Pilot piece, which is apparently just the first of two columns, Gray puts forth the basic critique of the prohibition position: that it strips us of our ability to regulate drugs, and that it actually increases the risks to young people. More remarkably, Gray also takes the rare step of proposing specific changes:

In my view, we should resume using the criminal justice system in the way it was designed: to hold people accountable for what they do, instead of what they put into their bodies. Along those lines, it makes as much sense to me to put that gifted actor Robert Downey, Jr. in jail for his cocaine addiction, and he certainly seems to have one, as it would to have put Betty Ford in jail for her alcohol addiction.

It is the same thing; it is a medical problem. But if Robert Downey, Jr., Betty Ford or you or I drive a motor vehicle while under the influence of any of these mind-altering drugs, that will still be an offense. Why is that? Because now those people would by their actions be putting the safety of other people at risk. When we finally are able to make that distinction in our approach, we will begin to make real progress in this area.

So what action should we take now? The first thing to do is for our president to appoint a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the possibility of change — as publicly as possible. Then in my view the first substantive action we should take is to treat marijuana like alcohol. What would happen if we were to do that? Three things, and all of them positive. Firstly, we taxpayers in California would literally save about a billion dollars every year that we now spend in a futile effort to eradicate marijuana, and to prosecute and incarcerate non-violent marijuana users.

Secondly, we could tax the stuff, and raise about $1.5 billion every year for the state coffers. So those two things alone would change the budget deficit in California by about $2.5 billion every year. And that is money that we should use for drug education and drug treatment, which will result in decreased problem usage of all drugs. But the third thing would be more important than the first two combined, because this we would be making marijuana less available for our children than it is today, as we have already discussed.

Just because we change our approach to this serious problem does not at all mean we condone drug abuse, and our children will understand that concept. There are better ways of accomplishing our goals of reducing drug abuse and all of the crime, misery and corruption that accompany it.

While I’m a big fan of groups like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), I’m struck by the way people who have actual authority and clout with law enforcement often seem to find the courage to speak out against the drug war only afterthey’ve retired and don’t have anything at stake in going public with their beliefs. It is a brave and fairly rare thing for a person who is still in authority and who is still in the middle of their career to speak out against our senseless drug war.