Challenging the War on Drugs


David Duhr

A version of this story ran in the July 2012 issue.

While public support for the legalization of marijuana in the United States has risen significantly in the last few years, it’s still fairly uncommon for a politician to take a similar stance. It’s even more rare for a politician to do so in a book—and when he’s embroiled in an ugly race for a congressional seat.

In late August 2011, El Paso City Council Member Beto O’Rourke announced his candidacy in the Democratic primary for Texas’ 16th Congressional District seat. His opponent? Eight-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, with his deep pockets and endorsements from President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton. The publication of O’Rourke’s book Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico in December of that year gave Reyes the ability to mislabel O’Rourke as an advocate for drug use.

While O’Rourke’s book—co-written with fellow City Council Member Susie Byrd—is a levelheaded, analytical exploration of why the drug war isn’t working, and how the regulated legalization of marijuana could help stem a hemorrhage of blood and money, Reyes quickly dismissed it as a pro-narcotics screed. “My opponent seems to think that recreational drug use of marijuana is okay,” Reyes told The Huffington Post. “I don’t want to live in a community where people think it’s okay to light up a joint and parade around elementary schools and junior highs.”

Susie Byrd claims that Reyes’ attacks had little effect on the race. “Voters who did not agree with Beto on this issue,” she told me, “appreciated that Beto took the time to really think through his stance and present it in a rational, thoughtful way.”

In the end, El Paso-area voters chose O’Rourke in the May 29 primary. He will face Republican Barbara Carrasco in the November election.

O’Rourke writes in the book’s introduction, “I can’t remember ever thinking about drug policy, much less caring about it.” Until 2008. That’s the year that Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels, and the city of Juarez—just across the border from El Paso—became a killing field. The murder rate in Juarez soared from an average of 200 a year to over 1,500 in 2008, more than 2,500 in 2009, and 3,111 in 2010.

Despite official claims to the contrary, it was clear that innocent citizens—not just those involved in the drug trade—were being killed in unprecedented numbers. In El Paso, O’Rourke, Byrd and other City Council members proposed “an honest, open, national debate on ending the prohibition of narcotics,” along with policy recommendations to stem prohibition-related violence. O’Rourke writes in the book that Congressman Reyes responded by threatening to withhold federal stimulus funds from the city. The resolution was voted down.

O’Rourke and Byrd collaborated on a book instead, offering legalization “as the best of a number of terrible alternatives.”

Dealing Death and Drugs almost overwhelms with statistics, but it kind of has to. So much of the argument for legalization comes down to numbers. The illegal drug market in the U.S. is valued at an estimated $60 to $80 billion annually. The U.S. spends nearly $50 billion a year to fight the war on drugs. Nearly 800,000 U.S. citizens were arrested in 2009 alone for possession of marijuana.

During the alcohol prohibition of the 1930s, U.S. murder rates spiked severely. Using that era as an analogy, Byrd and O’Rourke write, “Like alcohol prohibition, marijuana prohibition has led to more harm than good—more lives destroyed, more money spent, more tax revenues forgone.”

Come November, voters in the Democratic-leaning congressional district are likely to send Beto O’Rourke to D.C. When I asked if he would continue to build on the legalization efforts he and Byrd started together, O’Rourke said, “We [El Pasoans] understand these issues better than anyone, certainly better than lawmakers from other parts of the country who currently make border policy. So yes, I’d like to take the El Paso perspective and voice to D.C. and make sure that at a minimum Congress understands the unintended consequences of policies aimed at the border and Mexico.”

Even if he doesn’t, Byrd believes that their book has already proven an important point to politicians scared to speak up. “Your average everyday person thinks it is a conversation worth having,” she said, “but politicians worry that they won’t survive an election if they talk about alternatives to the current policy.”

Now that both of them have, perhaps others will join the discussion.

Observer Fiction Editor David Duhr is co-founder of WriteByNight, a writing center in Austin.