On the way to the Drug Policy Alliance conference in Albuquerque, we were pulled over at the Border Patrol checkpoint just past Hatch, heading north on I-25. I’ve lived more than a quarter-century in El Paso, and having to pass a paramilitary checkpoint on the way elsewhere has been a continual sore spot.
I’ve never been pulled over before, whether driving or as a passenger, but it was fitting given where we were headed, I suppose. The friendly agent emphasized that they were “looking for smugglers, not smokers,” and he remained courteous as he asked us questions – where are you from, where are you going, are you sure you’re not carrying, and so on. They were slightly amused when we told them where we were headed. We were on our way after about 15 minutes.
While it irked me to be pulled over, it could have been worse. Law officers, especially when young and overwhelmed by the raw street power they wield, don’t always understand that in a free society, their power comes from our assent, and they ought to use it lightly unless absolutely, unquestionably called for.
So is the Drug War absolutely, unquestionably called for? Depends who you ask, although recent polling by Gallup finds that about half the country thinks marijuana ought to remain illegal, while 44 percent, an all-time, ahem, high, believe otherwise.
Vanessa Romero, a UTEP student and an organizer with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, believes otherwise. She went to the conference with a delegation of El Paso students, and did something very brave – allowed me to “out” her as an occasional pot smoker. “You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is, right?” she said. That’s important, because prohibitionists try to marginalize proponents of policy change, and standing up to the catcalls is one way to take away that power.
More than 1,000 activists spent three days talking about ways to end the Drug War. Attendees considered their own momentum and discussed strategies for control of drugs, once legal. They talked about marijuana as medicine, about working through the legislative process to change policy, and about violence in Mexico and elsewhere in the world. Speakers from around the world, and some from El Paso, presented at dozens of panels.
City Rep. Beto O’Rourke spoke at the opening session of the conference. He told the crowd that legalizing drugs was not a subject upon which he thought much until 2008, when it became apparent that the violence in Juarez was unprecedented and uncontrollable. As he researched the issue, leading up to the nationally publicized resolution asking Congress to “open national debate on ending the prohibition of narcotics,” he said he realized prohibition was at the root of the profits that drove the violence. I don’t think ending prohibition will make the cartels go away, or end government corruption. But it will give the bad guys in both government and the underworld one less tool through which to raise money and entangle people who want nothing to do with either.
The issues raised at the conference are not little things. From the militarization of our border to health and welfare to personal choice vs. social command and control to urban decay and renewal to foreign affairs, the Drug War has seeped into almost every aspect of public policy.
How do we untangle these threads and make sense of it all? That’s up to you. But remember this: Prohibition of marijuana swept the country starting in the early years of the 21st century. El Paso was at the forefront of that, making marijuana illegal by ordinance in 1914. There was little or no debate – the minutes of the meeting state only that it was considered an emergency ordinance, and the regular rules for a public hearing were waived. It was the time of the Mexican Revolution, and you can bet there was more than a touch of hysteria about Mexicans to this new law.
The rationale never got much better – just more sophisticated – over the last 100 years.
It’s a fitting historic symmetry that El Paso now is at the forefront of debate over this policy.
By Sito Negron
November 18-24, 2009
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The Drug War, historic symmetry and the Albuquerque conference