MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
We are in Las Vegas at the National Association of Black Journalists Convention, and we're broadcasting from member station KNPR.
Today, we're going to talk a lot about issues in journalism. We're going to hear from veteran journalist Bernard Shaw. The former CNN anchor is receiving a lifetime achievement award here at NABJ. And we're going to talk about whether black talk radio offers enough diversity of opinion.
But first, politics. The war in Iraq and the war on terror are dominant issues in the current presidential race. But Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel has spoken out on another expensive, long-term national fight - the war on drugs. At a recent debate at Howard University, Gravel talked about the toll that the drug war has taken on America, particularly on the black community.
Mr. MIKE GRAVEL (Former Democrat Senator, Alaska; Presidential Candidate): One of the areas that touches me the most and enrages me the most is our war on drugs that this country has been putting forth for the last generation. And if I am president, I'll do away with the war on drugs, which does nothing but savage our inner cities and put our children at risk.
MARTIN: I spoke with Senator Gravel earlier in our Washington studio, and asked him why he decided to take on the drug war as a key campaign issue.
Mr. GRAVEL: Well, first off, because it's an important issue. The war on drugs is what's tearing apart our communities, particularly the inner cities. And, as you pointed out, it affects the black community, but it also affects the white community. It affects the entire community. We have to begin to rebuild and protect the inner cities, and we don't do that. And…
MARTIN: But what made you start thinking about it as we - as I'm sure everybody knows that you are a former senator from Alaska. I don't think people really associate Alaska with one of those places that has been struggling long term with the issue of illegal drugs and how we, as a society, manage this. So what made you start thinking about this?
Mr. GRAVEL: Well, all I can say is it's a great injustice to a large group of Americans, and that just angers me. And there's not a person within the sound of my voice that doesn't know that the social experiment that was attempted in the '20s with the prohibition of alcohol hasn't been an abject failure.
It turned around and criminalized large elements, and we still have the elements of the mafia and organized crime that are the legacy of that. And now what we've done is we take that, and FDR had the courage to say we're going to stop this, and he did. And I tell you, I become president, I will have the courage to stop this war on drugs…
MARTIN: And how will you do it? What exactly do you want to do differently?
Mr. GRAVEL: Well, first off, decriminalize marijuana. Marijuana does not - is not anymore addictive than alcohol - in fact, less addictive and less harmful than alcohol.
MARTIN: Do you know this from personal experience?
Mr. GRAVEL: I've tried marijuana two or three times. I get no kick out of it. But this is from reading studies now, so it's not a question of my personal experience. And with respect to hard drugs, we have to recognize that addiction, whether it's addiction to pain pills, whether it's addiction to cocaine or morphine or laudanum in the old days, it's an addiction problem.
And so we have to treat it for what it is - a public health problem, not a criminal problem. What we've done is we filled up our prisons. It's not the drugs that's the problem, it's the war on drugs. You stop the war on drugs, and you lower crime.
MARTIN: Can we talk more specifically about what exactly you will do to stop this? Would you - first, you'd decriminalize marijuana.
Mr. GRAVEL: Right.
MARTIN: What about cocaine?
Mr. GRAVEL: Cocaine - all the other drugs. If you have an addiction, you go to a doctor, he writes you a prescription, you take it to the pharmacy, you get it. You don't have to go out on the street and pay these crazy prices. So right away…
MARTIN: You would control access.
Mr. GRAVEL: Total, total and…
MARTIN: But people already - people have drug problem as related to prescription drugs like OxyContin, painkillers and so forth.
Mr. GRAVEL: That's right. And what are we doing about it? Are we throwing them in jail? Heck, no. If they're black, yes, but if they're white, no. They just take it home and they all get drugged up on their painkillers. I take painkillers. I'm entitled to take three a day because I have neuropathy. But I only take one because I don't want the side effects. But understand, it's a question of judgment.
And people who do become addicted to drugs, a lot of times, they can continue their life. They can be productive people. But the minute we make - we criminalize it, that's why. So that I would say to the people who say in the inner city who are afraid to decriminalize, I'll tell you that's the only way you're going to stop the violence in your community. If you - in this country, if you got money, you get justice. No money, no justice. And if there's anybody that knows that, it's the people at the bottom of the pyramid.
MARTIN: But then - and the thought that this is enabling it socially, that you're lifting a social sanction from something that's destructive - I mean, the same way that - people have this argument about cigarettes. They say it's a legal drug that can kill you. And so what people try to do now is they try to control access, right? It's going to be behind the counter, and they try to make it socially unacceptable.
Mr. GRAVEL: And it works. Stop and think, if we can now identify the people who have a problem in substance abuse. So when you go to a doctor, he'll give you a prescription. He's not going to - but you register. And so you are now identified as a substance abuser. There's no big deal, but we'll be able to make you aware of the fact that if you do want to get off, just call this number anytime of the day, and we'll help you.
MARTIN: And so what you're saying is, if I'm hearing you correctly, you would redirect the money that goes into law enforcement and direct that more into rehabilitation or programs to help people manage their addictions.
Mr. GRAVEL: Isn't that what we do with a health problem? And that's what addiction is - it's a public health problem. It's not a criminal problem. Here we've got 25 years of doing this - wasting over 50 to 70 to $100 billion a year, and never mind the cost of putting all these people in jail. Put a number to that, that's about $30,000 a person per year. That's the cost of a Harvard education.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're talking with Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel.
Senator, I hope I can ask this without being mean, but there are candidates - other candidates, public officials like former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who favored and talked about decriminalizing drugs. He says it's expensive. It doesn't work. And were - he was considered a very mainstream politician. He'd been a Rhodes scholar and, you know, wore suit every day, you know what I mean? He had done all the right things, and he still could not get any traction on this issue.
Now I hope it's not going to be a shock to you that the word gad fly has been associated with you and with your candidacy, but I do wonder if you ever - if you were ever concerned that you are the right messenger for a message which is so radical.
Mr. GRAVEL: No, I'm the only messenger for such a message, and I proved that with my activities 34 years ago. I wasn't like the other politicians, you know, posing and making a lot of statements that say nothing. Look at the debates right now. I get four minutes in the debate, Obama gets 16, Hillary gets 16. And, of course, what are they saying? A lot of pablum.
Do you think - here, and I've got no space for Obama on this one. He's a black man who says he's concerned about the poverty, and the same thing with Evers. They're concerned about poverty. Well, here, the war on drugs causes more poverty than anything else in this country that I can think of.
MARTIN: If I - can we talk about the campaign for a minute. You've got a lot of attention for your performance at the debates for being very clear about your positions. You've got a significant following on the Internet, but you - you've had virtually no traction in the polls at all. Why do you think that is?
Mr. GRAVEL: First off, I wish I knew that. In the Internet, I'm one of the top three. But I might say, it's interesting. Here, I've been out of circulation for a generation. I come back, and immediately I'm at the same level as Kucinich, Biden and Dodd, who have been getting - who have been running for president for the last six years visibly.
MARTIN: You're going to be participating in a debate, but it's meant to specifically focus on issues of concerns of gay and lesbian and transgender, bisexual people, and you are one of the two Democratic candidates who is for gay marriage. I just wanted to ask how you came to that position.
Mr. GRAVEL: Marriage is something that's not appropriated by any specific religion. All religions, all civil societies use the word marriage. Marriage is a commitment between two human beings in love, whether those human beings are heterosexual or homosexual, (unintelligible) never mind. In fact, what the world needs is a lot more love, and that's what they're talking about. And for me, it's a civil rights issue. I'll tell you, five years from now, gay marriage will be accepted to the tune of 55, 60 percent by the American people. And what does that is people like myself and Dennis stepping out there and moving the ball down the field.
MARTIN: Dennis Kucinich, one of your - the other candidate who is for gay marriage.
Mr. GRAVEL: One of - yeah. Right, one of the - my competitors. And we're moving the ball down the field. Now, people say, well, that's courage. Well, I would hope that the people in the gay community would recognize that if it weren't for people like myself standing up for their civil rights, that they should help us move the ball down the field rather than copping out like a bunch of wimps to the celebrities in the fields who don't have the guts to stand up for their civil rights. And I say repeatedly to the gay community, you got a problem, get out of the closet and fight for your rights. I don't know if anybody in society - and primarily with the black community - that didn't get their rights by fighting for it. Gays, you want rights, go fight for them and I'll help you.
MARTIN: Is it possible that voters just enjoy hearing you talk your straight talk - to borrow a phrase from John McCain - but that they have no intention of voting for you?
Mr. GRAVEL: What I hear mostly, people will stop me on the street - I'm beginning to get recognize now. People look at me, you're a breath of fresh air, you know, keep - walking right on by. Breath of fresh air is what I hear over and over again. I wish I could coin it, so we could use it in our campaign. But other people are using it, and that suffices.
MARTIN: Is that going to be sufficient for you, if you're a breath of fresh air and you raise issues in a way that - issues that other people aren't raising or raising them in a way that other people aren't raising, but you still won't get any votes? Would that be enough for you?
Mr. GRAVEL: No. Well it - first off, what's going to be enough for me is to empower you as a lawmaker. That floats my boat. That's all I want to accomplish in life, is to turn around and alter the paradigm of human governance.
But with respect to the campaign, let me tell you this. I do know this: The American people are fed up, fed up with partisan politics. They're fed up with the message of politicians, the same old pablum, and will they react? I'm betting my campaign on that because, there's - I don't have a prayer of winning unless the American people all of a sudden rear back and say, heck with this. This old guy, maybe he's got few more years left in him. And I've got to tell you, I'm trying to convince them that I got more than a few years left in me.
MARTIN: Okay. Former U.S. senator Mike Gravel is a Democratic candidate for president. He joined us here in the studio. Senator, thank you so much for coming in.
Mr. GRAVEL: Michel, thank you.
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