GIAMBRA A PIONEER ON DRUGS?
Years from now, they may look at him in the same way we see Susan B. Anthony and other pioneers for women's rights. The women's movement began in the 1830s. Yet it wasn't until nearly 100 years later that women walked into a voting booth. And the equal-rights battle hardly ended there.
Joel Giambra is not a crusader in a dress. But he recently came out of the closet for a cause. After Sister Karen Klimczak was killed by an addict she caught robbing her room, the county executive said the unthinkable for a politician: We should think about legalizing some drugs.
In the weeks since, he was called everything from a loony to a seer. Law enforcement types roasted him. Others wondered what he was smoking. College professors called him courageous. Folks driving by on the street gave him the high sign - presumably not because they were high.
"We declared the war on drugs 30 years ago, and it's not working," Giambra said. "As long as we see this as a criminal issue and not a public health issue, we'll have bloodshed on the streets."
Giambra was saying the same thing 14 years ago - only not publicly. I did a couple of columns back then with Peter Christ ( rhymes with "wrist' ). He is an ex-Tonawanda police captain who is pushing for drug legalization. Giambra recently brought Christ to town. Fourteen years ago, Giambra told me that he agreed with Christ, but it would be political suicide to say so. His self-destruction with last year's budget fiasco gave him the chance to speak freely. After Sister Karen's death, he did.
"It was a chance to grab people by the lapels and say, "Wake up,' " Giambra said. "I've found that most people are at least open to a discussion, because nobody thinks we're winning this war on drugs."
If the past three decades proved anything, it is that there is no winning this war. The demand is too great, the fortunes in the drug trade are too huge. Drug busts come and go, the names of the dealers change, the story stays the same.
Peter Christ preaches it and Giambra believes: Better to spend billions of dollars on drug treatment and education instead of fighting a futile war.
Legalizing drugs puts dealers out of business and ends the violence that turns inner-city neighborhoods into war zones.
Dealers shoot each over over turf, not because they're high. Most thieves don't heist stereos or - in the case of Sister Karen's killer - - a cell phone to cover the rent. They sell the stuff to pay for their next fix.
Legalize and regulate drugs, like we do with alcohol, and dealers go out of business, addicts get treated and the violence mostly goes away. Mexico just came within a presidential veto - under pressure from Washington - of legalizing cocaine, pot, heroin and ecstasy for personal use.
America went through this with Prohibition. It is the lesson we did not learn.
"We didn't end Prohibition in 1933 because alcohol was great stuff or a wonderful drug," Christ said. "We ended it because as dangerous as alcohol can be, letting people like Al Capone run the marketplace made the problem worse. Yet we're doing the same thing now."
Giambra was blasted by Tim Howard, the county sheriff, and District Attorney Frank Clark. The sad part is, he didn't even get a discussion.
"Joel and I were labeled as crazy for calling for a regulated, controlled drug marketplace," Christ said. "People like the district attorney prefer a market controlled by gangsters and terrorists."
Given America's puritan roots and Just Say No propaganda, it may take a while for things to change. Just as it took suffragettes years to get a foothold.
Call Giambra crazy if you want. From here, he looks like a crusader.