I’ve had a long time to think about this. Twenty years ago, my girlfriend and I were decorating our Christmas tree in a rented farm house in rural Indiana when I heard a knock at the door. It was the Kosciusko County Sheriff’s deputies and the Indiana State Police.
I knew why they had come. They were there to arrest me for selling five grams of cocaine, to a friend turned police informant. She had turned me in to keep the cops from throwing her and her husband in prison and leaving their kids orphaned. I understood why they did it and never blamed them.
Getting busted was my fault. I was the one who gave her the drugs, while an undercover narcotics detective looked on. And I was the one who, until that day, had been wasting my life as a small-time drug peddler and big-time cocaine abuser.
I could have bought a good used car with the money I spent snorting cocaine in 1979. I also could have shared in the early upbringing of my now nineteen-year-old son, if I hadn’t spent nearly five years locked up in the Indiana Department of Corrections. I screwed up. I paid the price. I rebuilt my life. Since leaving an Indiana state prison, I have worked as a newspaper reporter, columnist, editor, and publisher.
Fifteen years later, I think about the lessons I’ve learned. Most of those lessons had to do with learning to appreciate my family and friends. In the worst of times, they can be all you have. Perhaps the most important lesson was the realization that if I care about the world around me, then I should do what I can to help make it better.
I chose journalism because I believed that as a writer I could contribute in some small way to the betterment of society. Our profession’s low standing in recent polls notwithstanding, I still believe that.
I tell you all this because I want to talk about the hypocrisy of the War on Drugs. Over the course of the last twenty years, I have concluded again and again that the government’s escalating battle to keep people from consuming illegal drugs has been a miserable failure.
I thought about this as I watched last month’s televised news reports from the U.S.-Mexico border, about an alleged mass gravesite that authorities think may be filled with the bodies of informants and others killed by Mexican drug traffickers. As of early January, few bodies had in fact been found — but the Mexican narcotraffickers are now among the most powerful in the world.
I think about the futility of the drug war, when I read about the U.S. government’s efforts to fight a proxy war in Colombia by providing cash, training, and weapons for that government to use in its efforts to defeat leftist rebels linked to international drug cartels.
And I think about our failed policy when I hear about young people, many of them only children, who are willing to gun each other down on America’s streets in crack cocaine turf battles.
The problem with the War on Drugs is that it demonizes an activity that our society also glorifies. We cannot fight a war that we perpetuate and promote.
You see, America’s War on Drugs is based on a hypocritical premise: a false distinction between the illegal drug user and the average beer drinker. Alcohol is also a drug. Yet, we deny that, and instead advertise it as a magic potion for success and happiness. Sell someone a beer and they’ll make a television sitcom glorifying your profession: remember “Cheers?” Sell someone a joint — and go to prison.
The drug trade and the liquor industry exist for the same reason: people want a buzz, or simply to self-destruct. In either case, at the core, there is no distinction.
We have misidentified the enemy. Our generals tell us the enemy is the international drug profiteer, in collusion with American wholesalers — including aimless, punk kids in Indiana. They are wrong.
Our real enemy does not live in a guarded mansion, perched on the mountains of Colombia. The true enemy in this war is our own hypocrisy.
Our nation spent about $18 billion and arrested 1.5 million people implementing its national anti-drug policy over the last year. Most of that money and manpower was wasted. Most of that money would have been far better spent on drug and alcohol rehabilitation and prevention programs. I’m not even counting the billions spent annually to keep convicted non-violent drug offenders in jail.
After New Year’s Eve, after we watched the world’s revelers tip their glasses to the New Millennium, we might also have thought about what’s inside the glasses.
End the hypocrisy. End the war.
James E. García is editor and publisher of Politico, a journal of Latino politics and culture, where an earlier version of this article first appeared. For more information, e-mail <[email protected]>, or write Politico, 1020 East Mountain Vista Drive, Phoenix, Arizona 85048.