EL PASO — The year was 1969, and as suburban American teenagers explored the exotic possibilities of the $10 lid — about an ounce of marijuana, seeds, stems and all — Vietnam vets were coming home as addicts and inner cities were being hit by heroin epidemics.
In June that year, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “a serious national threat,” and the mass media images of stoned Woodstock hippies that followed in August reinforced his warnings.
The broad enforcement program he launched soon became known as “the war on drugs,” and grew to become a multibillion-dollar effort focused on interdiction, destruction of foreign crops and harsh penalties for even minor offenses.
On its 40th anniversary, the drug war continues at a cost in blood, ruined lives and public dollars that Nixon could never have imagined.
Over the decades, calls to reassess the policy, or even end it, have had little effect.
Last week, as the year's toll of drug killings in nearby Ciudad Juárez moved steadily toward 1,800 — among the latest a headless, tortured body found in a canal — the debate finally came to the front line of the conflict: the border.
“After 40 years and all the money spent, with U.S. consumption as high as ever, people languishing in prison for possession of soft drugs like marijuana and the violence in Mexico worse than ever, it seems to me that something has to change,” said Kathleen Staudt, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, which hosted the “U.S. War on Drugs” conference.
More than two dozen drug experts, academics, border journalists and law enforcement officials gathered to compare notes for three days about drug policy, coming from Mexico, the United States and even Colombia.
Two seemingly unlikely advocates of radical change at the conference were Terry Nelson, a retired federal agent, and James Gray, a California state judge, both of whom once sent drug offenders to prison.
“The global war on drugs is probably the greatest public policy failure of all time,” said Nelson, who stalked traffickers in the Caribbean and Latin America during three decades with the U.S. Border Patrol, Customs and Department of Homeland Security.
“The drug war has brought us the militarization of our police force,” Nelson said. “And it's killing our families when you put a mother or father in jail for smoking small amounts of marijuana.”
Nelson said the answer is legalization, education and regulation, the treatment given two other dangerous but popular legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
Gray, a former federal prosecutor and now a silver-haired Republican judge in Orange County, has been arguing for reform since 1992, when he realized how many low-level drug users were being prosecuted.
“We lead the world in incarceration of our own citizens, both in sheer numbers and on a per capita basis,” he said, largely because of drug inmates.
Citing a public policy study that is best known for being ignored, he said, “Sixteen years ago the Rand Corporation found that we get seven times more value for drug treatment than we do for law enforcement.
“We cannot repeal the law of supply and demand. Maybe we should stop being moralists and start being managers,” he said, despite the entrenched economic interests involved.
Defending the drug war
Over three days of discussion, one voice was heard loudly defending the present policy.
“Ultimately what we are talking about is the obligation of the state to protect its citizens,” said Anthony Placido, who leads the Drug Enforcement Administration's intelligence program.
“It's about mind-altering substances that destroy human life and create the violence you see only a few blocks from here,” he said.
His presentation depicted meth-ravaged American housewives, the butchered bodies of Mexican drug soldiers and brain scans that purported to show “dead spots” caused by heavy marijuana use.
“We went to war after 9-11 when 3,100 people were killed. Thirty-eight thousand die every year in this country from drugs,” he said, adding that decriminalization would bring further harm.
With Ciudad Juárez in sharp relief just across the border from the UTEP campus, Mexicans joined their American counterparts in a search for common policy ground between the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs and the supplier of much of them.
The Mexican academics showed no enthusiasm for legalization of drugs in the U.S. The abyss remains wide, according to one Mexican border journalist who paraphrased former Mexican President Porfirio Diaz to make his point.
“Poor USA. So close to Mexico, so far from Mexican reality,” was the cryptic assessment of Ramon Cantu, editor of El Mañana of Nuevo Laredo, where, three years ago, a reporter was badly wounded in a narco attack on the newspaper office.
The conference headliner was Sergio Fajardo Valderrama, a candidate for the Colombian presidency who helped bring peace to Medellin, once the most dangerous city on the planet because of wholesale drug killings.
On Monday night, Fajardo drew more than 2,000 anxious listeners to a Greek-themed reception hall in Ciudad Juárez with a speech about the revitalization of Medellin, a turnaround centered on police reform and dramatic public works projects, such as libraries and schools, in poor neighborhoods.
Noticeably absent from the gathering were two members of the Obama administration — Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske and Border Czar Alan Bersin, who, according to Staudt, were invited but at the last minute declined to attend or send a representative.
The conversation was more choir practice than robust debate, as a consensus emerged that the enforcement-driven policy isn't working.
But, as one speaker reminded everyone, just talking about loosening drug policy remains the dangerous “third-rail” of American politics.
“You touch it, and you're dead,” she said.
Among the options examined were decriminalizing drug possession, with options ranging from marijuana to hard drugs, and treating drug abuse as a medical and social problem, rather than a crime.
A recent move in Mexico to decriminalize small amounts of drugs and a ruling by the Argentine Supreme Court that it is illegal for police to prosecute personal drug use buoyed arguments for legalization.
With the cartel drug war in Ciudad Juárez still raging, the man most responsible for bringing the drug debate to the border vowed not to rest.
“We, as a community, are now armed with so much information, we can exert more pressure on our elected leaders,” said El Paso Councilman Beto O'Rourke, who in January introduced a controversial resolution calling for an open discussion of all options on drug policy.
“In this community, we may not all agree on the solution, but we all agree on the problem,” he said. “And it's hard to imagine that you could create a policy that would be more harmful.”
By John MacCormack
September 28, 2009