Marijuana Policy Project
Curved Papers

RIP: 'Drug Crazy' Author Mike Gray

Mike Gray
Mike Gray joined the drug-reform movement after writing ’The China Syndrome’

Mike Gray was a brave man, and an activist fighting for social justice and freedom. He was also kind, generous, and caring, and a good friend.

A writer, documentary filmmaker and political activist, Mike was born in 1935 and raised by a conservative family in Indiana. He attended Purdue University where he received a degree in engineering in 1958. However, Mike soon became a journalist, moving to New York where he took job as assistant editor at Aviation Age.

He left New York a few years later and returned to the Midwest. In 1965, in Chicago, Mike, Jim Dennett and John Mason co-founded a production company called The Film Group. They worked on TV commercials, and used that money to create theatrical and film documentaries.

One of their first big releases was American Revolution 2. Released in 1969, the film was a look at the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968, the police-provoked riots there, and the beginning of an alliance between the Black Panthers and a group of white leftists called the Young Patriots Organization.

In 1969, while working on another project documenting the Black Panther Party and the civil rights struggle, one of the subjects of his film, local Party leader Fred Hampton, was murdered by Chicago police. Mike and his film crew were able to get to the scene of the killing and film it, securing evidence which would help prove that the official story - a shoot-out started by the Panthers - was a lie, that in fact the Chicago police, the state attorney's office, and the Feds had conspired to murder Hampton. Eventually it was learned that there had been an informant inside Hampton's inner circle who drugged him the night of the raid. He never woke up; the police murdered Hampton in his sleep. The film changed direction that night, and became the 1971 release, The Murder of Fred Hampton.

Mike moved to Los Angeles in 1973 where he continued writing, and working in the film and TV industry. He developed a screenplay about a nuclear accident which became The China Syndrome, for which Mike was nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe in 1980. Two weeks after the film's release, life nearly imitated art at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. Mike went to Harrisburg immediately after to interview locals and to cover the story for Rolling Stone. He also co-wrote with Ira Rosen a book on the disaster, The Warning: Accident at Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Omen for the Age of Terror.

Eventually, Mike turned his attention to the War on Drugs. He spent several years researching Drug Crazy, which was published by Random House in 1998. In 240 pages, Mike took apart the drug war, detailing its origins and analyzing its impact. Around that time Mike joined with Robert Field, Melvin Allen and Kevin Zeese to create the nonprofit organization Common Sense for Drug Policy. I met Mike when I began working for CSDP in 2000.

Some time in the last decade, Mike was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He survived treatment and as far as I know was in remission. Still, it's a harsh disease, a harsh treatment, and the lingering after-effects of both can be misery-making and debilitating. Since Mike always put on the brave face for the public, few people realized he was dealing with a serious illness.

I was fortunate enough to be able to spend time last October with Mike during the 2012 NORML conference in Los Angeles. He was in great spirits, though behind the scenes his hands trembled so badly he had great difficulty pouring a glass of water. Mike was showing off a video that his son, Lucas - who is a storyboard artist for The Simpsons - and some of co-workers created to encourage voters to support Pres. Obama's re-election. The last night we were together I got out my recorder and microphones and a couple of bottles of good Oregon wine, and taped a conversation with Kevin and Mike as we talked about drug policy, marijuana legalization, the reform movement and social justice activism. Part of that conversation (about marijuana, Mike said: "Regulate it and control it like booze") was used as a segment in the radio show Cultural Baggage.

Mike's body may now be laid to rest, but his words, ideas, and work will continue to live on and to inspire new generations. Now it's up to us to carry on Mike Gray's legacy.

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Doug McVay

Doug McVay

Writer and KBOO radio host based in Portland, Ore. He's also editor of DrugPolicyFacts.org.