HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html profile of 'Drug Crazy' author Mike Gray
Pubdate: Fri, 28 Aug 1998
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Section: Tempo, p. 1
Author: Paul Galloway


Thirty years ago, on a Wednesday afternoon in late August, Mike Gray and
his film crew were shooting a television commercial for Kentucky Fried
Chicken in his studio on Chicago's North Side. It starred the company icon,
Col. Harlan Sanders himself.

It was not just any Wednesday afternoon in August. The Democratic National
Convention was being held in Chicago that week, and the emotion and tumult
engulfing that watershed political event was moving toward what would
become a chaotic and storied crescendo.

"We got a phone call from a friend who said all hell was breaking loose in
Grant Park," Gray said. "We decided we had to be there. The colonel had
taken a fancy to our receptionist, so we asked if he would mind taking her
to get a bite to eat while we took a break. He was delighted to do that, of
course, and we grabbed our camera gear and headed for Grant Park."

Gray and his people filmed throughout the afternoon and into the night,
when Chicago police erupted in their notorious assault on demonstrators
outside the Conrad Hilton Hotel.

"When we came back to our studio at 3 a.m., we were different people," Gray
said. "We had been changed, transformed."

To use a term from those times, they'd been radicalized.

Gray chuckled. "I never saw Col. Sanders again," he said.

Now 63 and a resident of Los Angeles for the past 25 years, Gray was
tracing his odyssey from small-town Indiana native to graduate in
aeronautical engineering from Purdue University to ad-agency copywriter and
owner of a TV production house in Chicago to maker of film documentaries,
Hollywood screenwriter/director and author.

His third book, which was recently released, is "Drug Crazy: How We Got
Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out" (Random House), an engrossing,
unsettling, 198-page look at the country's dubious narcotics policies, past
and present.

"When I met Mike in the early '60s, he was a Goldwater Republican," said
Chicago filmmaker Gordon Quinn, a co-founder of Kartemquin Films, which
produced "Hoop Dreams," the celebrated 1994 documentary. "But his politics
were something that grew out of his experiences. He gets out into the world
and is deeply affected by what he finds there."

One of those things is the country's war on drugs. "The polls show that
something like 75 percent of Americans see the war on drugs as a terrible
failure, and I'm one of them," Gray said. "When you count the federal,
state and local outlays for direct law enforcement, plus the costs of
prisons and courts, we're spending $50 billion a year on suppression of
illegal drugs. And we've not only failed to stop the drug trade to any
significant degree, the situation is getting worse each year."

Harder-Than-Expected Job

Gray set out to solve the problem with a nice, neat, 90-minute documentary.
"My idea was to videotape all the experts on all sides, put it together and
come up with a sensible new approach," he said. "I figured it would take me
six or eight months."

Gray chuckled again. "That was six years ago."

He discovered the story was far more complicated than he had thought, and
he soon inaugurated Plan B, financing his research with a $40,000 book
advance from Random House and an assortment of temporary jobs, one of which
was working for his longtime friend, Hollywood director and former
Chicagoan Andrew Davis, as a second-unit director on Davis' 1993 hit, "The

"I look at Mike as a Renaissance man," said Davis, who recalls
collaborating with Gray early in their Chicago careers on a dog food
commercial. "He has a wonderful ability to explain technology -- or any
complex subject -- in human terms, so we can see it and understand it. And
he has an amazing instinct for the most important topics of our times. He
showed that with his documentaries and with `China Syndrome' (for which he
wrote the script) and with a book he did on the Apollo mission ("Angle of
Attack," 1992) . . ."

Still, Gray was continually strapped for money, so much so that his success
in staying the course is testimony to his stubborn streak of idealism.

"You might say I'm used to tilting at windmills," he said. "And I look at
everything I'd done as training for this book."

Gray's training began with two searing, 90-minute documentaries that he
co-produced in Chicago in the early 1970s with his friend, Howard Alk, both
underwritten with profits from his TV production company.

The first was "American Revolution II," a 1970 film about the social and
political upheavals of the '60s, which incorporated the footage that Gray
had shot during the '68 convention.

The second was "The Murder of Fred Hampton," released in 1972, an
indictment of the infamous, FBI-directed, predawn 1969 raid on a West Side
apartment in which Chicago Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton and another
Panthers member were killed.

"Both films won awards, and the Hampton film was shown at the Cannes film
festival," Gray said. "A lot of people liked it; Jack Nicholson was one of
our biggest supporters."

The Importance Of Color

"I think Mike's greatest talent is as a storyteller, which makes his work
so important," said producer Quinn. Yet Gray was unable to persuade
Hollywood studios to distribute either film to theaters.

"It was 10 years before the films were finally shown on television, well
after the issues they were about had been put to bed," Gray said. "But I
learned something. When I talked to the people in Hollywood about
distributing the Hampton film, all anybody wanted to know was `Who's this
guy Hampton?' and `Why did you shoot it in black-and-white?'

"I'd discovered the soft underbelly of Western civilization! The studios
didn't care about content. They didn't care if the film was a record of
state murder. What they cared about was shooting movies in color so they'd
sell more tickets. I realized there was an opening there for someone who
wanted to tell stories that were important."

Toward that goal, Gray moved to Hollywood in 1973, worked in the movie and
TV business and began writing the screenplay that would be made into "The
China Syndrome," which was about the potential hazards of nuclear power

The movie starred Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda, and 12 days
after its release in 1979, the same kind of "meltdown" emergency at the
center of Gray's script occurred at a nuclear power plant at Three Mile
Island, Pa.

"I meant `China Syndrome' to educate people about what I'd found by reading
books and interviewing scientists, which was that nuclear power could be
dangerous and that our heavy reliance on nuclear plants hadn't been clearly
thought through," Gray said.

In his view, the same can be said for our drug policy.

"Before I started looking into this, I was under the impression there was
some logical reason for our drug laws," he said. "I assumed that they were
originally a response to a terrible wave of addiction. In fact, when the
first federal anti-narcotics law was passed in 1914, drug use was

The effect of that initial law would be to shift responsibility for
addictive drugs such as cocaine and heroin from doctors to police,
transforming what had been addressed as a medical issue into a crime.

"The drug problem we have today is a totally self-inflicted wound, and it's
a much greater threat to our country's future than nuclear power plants,"
Gray said.

His assessment is that our drug policy was born of scientific ignorance,
naivete and political ambitions of a few misguided fanatics, but in recent
years, he blames political cynicism and cowardice for blocking efforts to
change present policies -- or even to seriously consider substantial

Gray sees our drug policy's parallels to Prohibition as its inherent flaw.
"The country actually began enacting alcohol and drug prohibition laws
about the same time," he said. "Up until then, if you passed a law, people
obeyed it. The supporters of Prohibition thought, `We'll simply pass this
law, and the world will be a much better place.'

"When Prohibition took effect nationwide in 1920, people were stupefied by
what happened. The temperance movement had been enormously successful, but
once its moral suasion was replaced with police power, we were rewarded
with an instant black market, the birth of organized crime, widespread
public disrespect for law, rampant corruption of police and courts and
violence on a scale that was unimagined."

When people finally became sufficiently fed up, Prohibition was repealed.
"Drug prohibition should have ended at the same time, for the same reason,
but there simply weren't enough drug users to form a constituency," Gray
said. "Instead, they became convenient scapegoats for any passing
officeseeker who needed to prove he was tough on crime."

The damage has been severe.

"Our policy of prohibition has created a drug trade of incredible wealth,"
he said. "The United Nations estimates that the drug lords take in $400
billion a year. That kind of money has corrupted the governments of
Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Mexico, not to mention the corruption it has
caused in police departments in this country.

"The reality on the street is a destructive relationship between police and
their drug informants. It's to an informant's advantage to turn in his
competitors, and it's to the police's advantage to have a list of drug
dealers to bust. So one dealer becomes dominant, and his enforcers are the

`Medicalization' Of Drugs

Gray advocates several steps toward an effective policy. "I'm for
regulation and taxation," he said. "I think `legalization' has become a
useless term because it means so many different things, but to those of us
who want reform, it means drugs by prescription only, with medical
supervision. So the term `medicalization' is closer to the mark."

One step is to remove marijuana from the list of hard drugs. "The number of
drug users that the federal government (cites) most is 13 million. If you
take marijuana users out of the equation, you're only talking about 3
million serious drug users, and how do you justify $50 billion a year to
get 3 million people to behave themselves?"

Gray noted a hopeful development in the support of drug reform that mirrors
the move toward Prohibition repeal.

"Prohibition was repealed after prominent business and social leaders began
to speak out and organize opposition," he said. "The same sort of thing is
happening now."

On June 8, an open letter to United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan
appeared in The New York Times under a headline that read: "We believe the
global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself."

The letter, which was sponsored by the Lindesmith Center, a nonprofit drug
policy research institute, criticized drug policies that emphasized
"criminalization and punishment" and was signed by 500 prominent business
executives, scientists, religious leaders, intellectuals, federal judges,
police chiefs and government officials from 39 countries, liberals and
conservatives alike.

The American signees included former Secretary of State George Shultz;
retired CBS-TV anchor Walter Cronkite; Milton Friedman, a Nobel laureate in
economics; Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties
Union; Patrick Murphy, former New York City police commissioner;
businessman Laurance Rockefeller; and the author of "Drug Crazy."

"When my wife saw my name," Gray confided, "she said, `499 world leaders
and one low-brow.' "

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