DrugSense FOCUS Alert #400 – Sunday, 12 April 2009
Easter Sunday readers of the Washington Post are treated to the
OPED below by Mike Gray of Common Sense for Drug Policy
We hope that the federal elected officials, their staffs, and other
federal bureaucrats read the OPED. Perhaps you may help by sending
them copies of the OPED.
Your letters to the editor of the Washington Post send a signal to
the newspaper that this issue is important to you, their readers.
Perhaps sensing that change is possible the number of published
letters on reform’s side has spiked so far this year as shown at
Some links to articles as they are archived by The Media Awareness
Project which touch on the issues of this OPED are:
http://mapinc.org/find?258 (Holder, Eric) http://www.mapinc.org/pot.htm (Marijuana) http://www.mapinc.org/topic/dispensaries
Pubdate: Sun, 12 Apr 2009
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2009 The Washington Post Company
WE TRIED A WAR LIKE THIS ONCE BEFORE
By Mike Gray
In 1932, Alphonse Capone, an influential businessman then living in
Chicago, used to drive through the city in a caravan of armor-plated
limos built to his specifications by General Motors.
Submachine-gun-toting associates led the motorcade and brought up the
rear. It is a measure of how thoroughly the mob mentality had
permeated everyday life that this was considered normal.
Capone and his boys were agents of misguided policy. Ninety years
ago, the United States tried to cure the national thirst for alcohol,
and it led to an explosion of violence unlike anything we’d ever
seen. Today, it’s hard to ignore the echoes of Prohibition in the
drug-related mayhem along our southern border. Over the past 15
months, there have been 7,200 drug-war deaths in Mexico alone, as the
government there battles an army of killers that would scare the
pants off Al Capone.
Now U.S. officials are warning that the vandals may be headed in this
direction. Too late: They’re already here. And they’re in a good
position to take over organized crime in this country as well.
After decades of trying to stem the influx of illegal narcotics into
the United States, it’s clear that the drug war, like Prohibition,
has led us into a gruesome blind alley. Drugs are cheaper than ever
before and you can buy them anywhere. As Mexico’s cash-starved
government struggles to keep up the good fight, the drug barons rake
in more than enough to buy political protection and military power
while still maintaining profit margins beyond imagining. And what’s
driving this desperate struggle may be the ubiquitous weed:
Southwestern lawmen say that marijuana accounts for two-thirds of the
At last, the spectacular violence in Mexico has captured everybody’s
attention, and in an eerie replay of the end of alcohol prohibition,
we may at last be witnessing the final act in the war on drugs.
One hint of a shifting wind came in February, when a state legislator
from San Francisco introduced a bill to tax, regulate and legalize
adult use of cannabis. This sort of grandstanding is always met with
derision, and this was no exception. But then something strange
happened: California’s chief tax collector said that the measure
would bring in $1.3 billion a year and save another $1 billion on
enforcement and incarceration. In a state facing an $18 billion
deficit, suddenly nobody was laughing.
Four days later Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, who’s no
legalizer, said that he, too, thinks we should take another look at
marijuana prohibition. "The most effective way to establish a virtual
barrier against the criminal activities is to take the profit out of
it," he told a U.S. Senate subcommittee.
The next day, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced a
minor policy shift with enormous implications: The federal government
would no longer go after groups that supply medical marijuana in the
13 states where it is legal. The Drug Enforcement Administration had
been raiding dispensaries routinely, and dozens of patients and
growers are behind bars today despite their legal status in
California’s eyes. Now that threat has vanished for those who comply
with state law. For California, this amounts to de facto legalization.
At his recent cyberspace town hall meeting, President Obama fielded a
question about whether legalizing marijuana would improve the
economy. "No," he replied as the audience giggled. But that answer
sheds no light on his actual thinking. Obama has already called the
drug war an "utter failure." And since he himself is an admitted
ex-toker, it’s hard to believe that he’d cancel some kid’s college
education over a crime he got away with.
Of course, resistance to marijuana legalization remains rock solid in
Washington among those who can’t face the failure of prohibition. But
that has more to do with politics than science. The Department of
Health and Human Services says that there are 32 million drug abusers
in the country, but that includes 25 million marijuana smokers. If
you strike them from the list, how do you justify spending $60
billion a year in this economy trying to stop 2 percent of the
population from being self-destructive? It would be dramatically
cheaper to follow the Swiss example: Provide treatment for all who
want it, and supply the rest with pure drugs under medical supervision.
When we erected an artificial barrier between alcohol producers and
consumers in 1920, we created a bonanza more lucrative than the Gold
Rush. The staggering profits from illegal booze gave mobsters the
financial power to take over legitimate businesses and expand into
casinos, loan sharking, labor racketeering and extortion. Thus we
created the major crime syndicates — and the U.S. murder rate jumped tenfold.
Fortunately, the Roaring ’20s were interrupted by the Crash of ’29,
and when the money ran out, the battle against booze was a luxury we
could no longer afford. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and over
the next decade the U.S. murder rate was cut in half.
Today it’s back up where it was at the peak of Prohibition — 10 per
100,000 — a jump clearly connected to the war on drugs. And anyone
who’s watching what’s going on south of the border can see that we’re
headed for an era of mayhem that would make Meyer Lansky and Frank
Costello weak in the knees.
Profits from the Mexican drug trade are estimated at about $35
billion a year. And since the cartels spend half to two-thirds of
their income on bribery, that would be around $20 billion going into
the pockets of police officers, army generals, judges, prosecutors
and politicians. Last fall, Mexico’s attorney general announced that
his former top drug enforcer, chief prosecutor Noe Ramirez Mandujano,
was getting $450,000 a month under the table from the Sinaloa cartel.
The cartel can of course afford to be generous — Sinaloa chief
Joaquin Guzman recently made the Forbes List of Billionaires.
The depth of Guzman’s penetration into the United States was revealed
a few weeks ago, when the DEA proudly announced hundreds of arrests
all over the country in a major operation against the "dangerously
powerful" Sinaloa cartel. One jarring detail was the admission that
Mexican cartels are now operating in 230 cities inside the United States.
This disaster has been slowly unfolding since the early 1980s, when
Vice President George H.W. Bush shut down the Caribbean cocaine
pipeline between Colombia and Miami. The Colombians switched to the
land route and began hiring Mexicans to deliver the goods across the
U.S. border. But when the Mexicans got a glimpse of the truckloads of
cash headed south, they decided that they didn’t need the Colombians
at all. Today the Mexican cartels are full-service commercial
organizations with their own suppliers, refineries and a distribution
network that covers all of North America.
As we awaken to the threat spilling over our southern border, the
reactions are predictable. In addition to walling off the border,
Congress wants to send helicopters, military hardware and unmanned
reconnaissance drones into the fray — and it wants the Pentagon to
train Mexican troops in counterinsurgency tactics.
Our anti-drug warriors have apparently learned nothing from the past
two decades. A few years ago we trained several units of the Mexican
army in counterinsurgency warfare. They studied their lessons, then
promptly deserted to form the Zetas, a thoroughly professional narco
hit squad for the Gulf cartel, which offered considerably better pay.
Over the past eight years, the Mexican army has had more than 100,000
The president of Mexico rightly points out that U.S. policy is at the
root of this nightmare. Not only did we invent the war on drugs, but
we are the primary consumers.
The obvious solution is cutting the demand for drugs in the United
States. Clearly, it would be the death of the cartels if we could
simply dry up the market. Unfortunately, every effort to do this has
met with resounding failure. But now that the Roaring ’00s have hit
the Crash of ’09, the money has vanished once again, and we can no
longer ignore the collateral damage of Prohibition II.
Writing last month in the Wall Street Journal, three former Latin
American presidents — Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar
Gaviria of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico — declared the war
on drugs a failure. Responding to a situation they say is "urgent in
light of the rising levels of violence and corruption," they are
demanding a reexamination of U.S.-inspired drug policies.
Two weeks ago, a conservative former superior court judge in Orange
County told the Los Angeles Times that legalization was the only
answer, and of 4,400 readers who responded immediately, the Times
reported that "a staggering 94 percent" agreed with him.
This is another pivotal moment in U.S. history, strangely resonant
with 1933. The war on drugs has been a riveting drama: It has given
us great television, filled our prisons and employed hundreds of
thousands as guards, police, prosecutors and probation officers. But
the party’s over.
Here is a glimpse of what lies ahead if we fail to end our second
attempt to control the personal habits of private citizens. Listen to
Enrique Gomez Hurtado, a former high court judge from Colombia who
still has shrapnel in his leg from a bomb sent to kill him by the
infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. In 1993, his country was a
free-fire zone not unlike Mexico today, and Gomez issued this
chilling — and prescient — warning to an international drug policy
conference in Baltimore:
"The income of the drug barons is greater than the American defense
budget. With this financial power they can suborn the institutions of
the State, and if the State resists . . . they can purchase the
firepower to outgun it. We are threatened with a return to the Dark Ages."
Ending prohibition won’t solve our drug problem. But it will save us
from something far worse. And it will put drug addiction back in the
hands of the medical profession, where it was being dealt with
successfully — until we called in the cops.
Mike Gray, the chairman of Common Sense for Drug Policy, is the
author of "Drug Crazy: How We Got Into This Mess and How We Can Get Out."
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