Back to mobile

The 10 Words Heard Around the World

by Published on

Last January, El Paso city councilman Beto O’Rourke sparked controversy when he amended 10 words onto a resolution demonstrating solidarity with the people of Juarez who are experiencing unprecedented narco violence.

Within a couple of hours Lou Dobbs was on air raging about El Paso’s surrender on the War on Drugs. A few days later the city’s state legislators and a federal congressman sent letters threatening the city’s funding if O’Rourke kept pushing his amendment.

So what were these controversial words O’Rourke dared flaunt in public? The councilman asked for an “honest open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics.”

It’s been 40 years since  “Tricky Dick” Nixon declared the U.S. government’s War on Drugs and we are still waiting for that national debate.  Now in the fourth decade of fighting that war our government continues to invest billions on incarceration.  In 2007, more than 872,000 people were arrested for marijuana violations alone, according to FBI statistics – the highest number in history.

Any suggestion that we divert from the War on Drugs causes politicians to squirm and conservative TV pundits like Dobbs to turn apoplectic

I think border residents know very well the impact that failed drug policies can have. They have only to look across the Rio Grande at Juarez where 1,600 people were killed last year in a battle among drug cartels over drug smuggling routes to the United States.

Eric Sterling, an expert on U.S. drug policy and president of the nonprofit Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, says America’s drug policies haven’t reduced the number of drugs being consumed. In the past 20 years, in fact, the death rate among drug users has tripled instead of declined.

And the War on Drugs has enriched Mexico’s drug cartels, Sterling says. “Are we hurting the criminals who profit from selling drugs? No. It’s a $60 billion a year business that is untaxed.”

If Mexico had any leverage with the United States, Sterling suggests, it would insist we tax marijuana, which is a large portion of what the Mexican cartels sell. “This would significantly weaken the cartels,” he says.

One thing that Mexico has done recently despite past objections from the United States is pass a law to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and other drugs. The new law emphasizes free government treatment of drug addiction instead of incarceration.

Several other Latin American countries, including Colombia, have also recently passed similar laws. Only time will tell if their policies work, but at least they are trying something different. We are stuck in a multi-billion dollar drug war boondoggle going nowhere. Our jails can’t keep up with the sheer number of drug arrests that are poring into them.

What if we treated drug addiction like a medical condition that deserved treatment instead of locking people up where they can find more drugs and mis-treatment?

Luckily, the attempts made so many months ago to quash those 10 words have been unsuccessful. This month people from around the world will come to El Paso to join in a debate about our failed drug poiicies. September 20-22 the University of Texas El Paso will sponsor a global public policy forum on the War on Drugs.  Among speakers at the event will be the former mayor of Medellin, Colombia and a former national security advisor for Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

Tony Payan, a professor at the University, who is organizing the forum along with O’Rourke and others, says the circle is tightening around the United States and its emphasis on incarceration.

“The younger generation is more amenable to the idea of treating drug abuse as a medical problem,” Payan says. “There is a very fragile cultural shift occurring. We are hoping to nurture it so that it takes on a momentum of its own.”

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.