Debating the Drug War


In 1969, President Richard Nixon declared the U.S. government’s War on Drugs. Forty years later, the federal government continues to invest billions in interdiction and incarceration. In 2007, 872,000 people were arrested for marijuana violations, according to FBI statistics—the highest number ever.

Any suggestion that we end this war causes politicians to squirm and conservative TV pundits to go ballistic. That’s what happened last January when a young El Paso city councilman named Beto O’Rourke inserted 10 words into a council resolution calling for an “honest open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics.”

Within hours, Lou Dobbs was ranting on CNN about El Paso’s “surrender on the War on Drugs.” State representatives and the city’s congressman, Democrat Silvestre Reyes, wrote scorching letters telling O’Rourke that city funding was at risk if he continued to push a debate on legalization.

Like every El Pasoan, O’Rourke has seen firsthand the impact of failed drug policies. He has only to look across the Rio Grande at Juarez, where at least 1,600 people were killed last year in a battle among drug cartels over smuggling routes into 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 cut drug consumption. In the past 20 years, he points out, the death rate among drug users has tripled. Meanwhile, 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, it should insist that the U.S. decriminalize and tax marijuana, which is a large portion of what the cartels sell, Sterling says. “This would significantly weaken the cartels,” he says.

Despite objections from the United States, Mexico has decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana and other drugs. The recent law emphasizes free government treatment for addiction instead of incarceration. Several other Latin American countries, including Colombia, followed suit with similar reforms this summer.

In El Paso, the debate over U.S. drug policy is anything but over. The quashing of O’Rourke’s amendment made him more determined to hold a serious discussion in his hometown. From Sept. 20 to Sept. 22, he’ll get his wish as the University of Texas at El Paso holds a policy forum on the War on Drugs. Speakers from across the globe, including the former mayor of Medellín, Colombia, and the former national security adviser for Mexican President Felipe Calderon, will attend.

Tony Payan, a UTEP professor and one of the conference’s organizers, 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 is a staff writer and a 2015-16 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

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Published at 12:00 am CST