In 1932, Alphonse Capone, an influential businessman then living in Chicago, used to drive through the city in a caravan of armor-plated limos built to his specifications by General Motors.
Submachine-gun-toting associates led the motorcade and brought up the rear. It is a measure of how thoroughly the mob mentality had permeated everyday life that this was considered normal.
Capone and his boys were agents of misguided policy. Ninety years ago, the United States tried to cure the national thirst for alcohol, and it led to an explosion of violence unlike anything we'd ever seen. Today, it's hard to ignore the echoes of Prohibition in the drug-related mayhem along our southern border. Over the past 15 months, there have been 7,200 drug-war deaths in Mexico alone, as the government there battles an army of killers that would scare the pants off Al Capone.
Now U.S. officials are warning that the vandals may be headed in this direction. Too late: They're already here. And they're in a good position to take over organized crime in this country as well.
After decades of trying to stem the influx of illegal narcotics into the United States, it's clear that the drug war, like Prohibition, has led us into a gruesome blind alley. Drugs are cheaper than ever before and you can buy them anywhere. As Mexico's cash-starved government struggles to keep up the good fight, the drug barons rake in more than enough to buy political protection and military power while still maintaining profit margins beyond imagining. And what's driving this desperate struggle may be the ubiquitous weed: Southwestern lawmen say that marijuana accounts for two-thirds of the cartels' income.
At last, the spectacular violence in Mexico has captured everybody's attention, and in an eerie replay of the end of alcohol prohibition, we may at last be witnessing the final act in the war on drugs.
One hint of a shifting wind came in February, when a state legislator from San Francisco introduced a bill to tax, regulate and legalize adult use of cannabis. This sort of grandstanding is always met with derision, and this was no exception. But then something strange happened: California's chief tax collector said that the measure would bring in $1.3 billion a year and save another $1 billion on enforcement and incarceration. In a state facing an $18 billion deficit, suddenly nobody was laughing.
Four days later Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, who's no legalizer, said that he, too, thinks we should take another look at marijuana prohibition. "The most effective way to establish a virtual barrier against the criminal activities is to take the profit out of it," he told a U.S. Senate subcommittee.
The next day, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced a minor policy shift with enormous implications: The federal government would no longer go after groups that supply medical marijuana in the 13 states where it is legal. The Drug Enforcement Administration had been raiding dispensaries routinely, and dozens of patients and growers are behind bars today despite their legal status in California's eyes. Now that threat has vanished for those who comply with state law. For California, this amounts to de facto legalization.
At his recent cyberspace town hall meeting, President Obama fielded a question about whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy. "No," he replied as the audience giggled. But that answer sheds no light on his actual thinking. Obama has already called the drug war an "utter failure." And since he himself is an admitted ex-toker, it's hard to believe that he'd cancel some kid's college education over a crime he got away with.
Of course, resistance to marijuana legalization remains rock solid in Washington among those who can't face the failure of prohibition. But that has more to do with politics than science. The Department of Health and Human Services says that there are 32 million drug abusers in the country, but that includes 25 million marijuana smokers. If you strike them from the list, how do you justify spending $60 billion a year in this economy trying to stop 2 percent of the population from being self-destructive? It would be dramatically cheaper to follow the Swiss example: Provide treatment for all who want it, and supply the rest with pure drugs under medical supervision.
When we erected an artificial barrier between alcohol producers and consumers in 1920, we created a bonanza more lucrative than the Gold Rush. The staggering profits from illegal booze gave mobsters the financial power to take over legitimate businesses and expand into casinos, loan sharking, labor racketeering and extortion. Thus we created the major crime syndicates -- and the U.S. murder rate jumped tenfold.
Fortunately, the Roaring '20s were interrupted by the Crash of '29, and when the money ran out, the battle against booze was a luxury we could no longer afford. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and over the next decade the U.S. murder rate was cut in half.
Today it's back up where it was at the peak of Prohibition -- 10 per 100,000 -- a jump clearly connected to the war on drugs. And anyone who's watching what's going on south of the border can see that we're headed for an era of mayhem that would make Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello weak in the knees.
Profits from the Mexican drug trade are estimated at about $35 billion a year. And since the cartels spend half to two-thirds of their income on bribery, that would be around $20 billion going into the pockets of police officers, army generals, judges, prosecutors and politicians. Last fall, Mexico's attorney general announced that his former top drug enforcer, chief prosecutor Noe Ramirez Mandujano, was getting $450,000 a month under the table from the Sinaloa cartel. The cartel can of course afford to be generous -- Sinaloa chief Joaquin Guzmán recently made the Forbes List of Billionaires.
The depth of Guzmán's penetration into the United States was revealed a few weeks ago, when the DEA proudly announced hundreds of arrests all over the country in a major operation against the "dangerously powerful" Sinaloa cartel. One jarring detail was the admission that Mexican cartels are now operating in 230 cities inside the United States.
This disaster has been slowly unfolding since the early 1980s, when Vice President George H.W. Bush shut down the Caribbean cocaine pipeline between Colombia and Miami. The Colombians switched to the land route and began hiring Mexicans to deliver the goods across the U.S. border. But when the Mexicans got a glimpse of the truckloads of cash headed south, they decided that they didn't need the Colombians at all. Today the Mexican cartels are full-service commercial organizations with their own suppliers, refineries and a distribution network that covers all of North America.
As we awaken to the threat spilling over our southern border, the reactions are predictable. In addition to walling off the border, Congress wants to send helicopters, military hardware and unmanned reconnaissance drones into the fray -- and it wants the Pentagon to train Mexican troops in counterinsurgency tactics.
Our anti-drug warriors have apparently learned nothing from the past two decades. A few years ago we trained several units of the Mexican army in counterinsurgency warfare. They studied their lessons, then promptly deserted to form the Zetas, a thoroughly professional narco hit squad for the Gulf cartel, which offered considerably better pay. Over the past eight years, the Mexican army has had more than 100,000 deserters.
The president of Mexico rightly points out that U.S. policy is at the root of this nightmare. Not only did we invent the war on drugs, but we are the primary consumers.
The obvious solution is cutting the demand for drugs in the United States. Clearly, it would be the death of the cartels if we could simply dry up the market. Unfortunately, every effort to do this has met with resounding failure. But now that the Roaring '00s have hit the Crash of '09, the money has vanished once again, and we can no longer ignore the collateral damage of Prohibition II.
Writing last month in the Wall Street Journal, three former Latin American presidents -- Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico -- declared the war on drugs a failure. Responding to a situation they say is "urgent in light of the rising levels of violence and corruption," they are demanding a reexamination of U.S.-inspired drug policies.
Two weeks ago, a conservative former superior court judge in Orange County told the Los Angeles Times that legalization was the only answer, and of 4,400 readers who responded immediately, the Times reported that "a staggering 94 percent" agreed with him.
This is another pivotal moment in U.S. history, strangely resonant with 1933. The war on drugs has been a riveting drama: It has given us great television, filled our prisons and employed hundreds of thousands as guards, police, prosecutors and probation officers. But the party's over.
Here is a glimpse of what lies ahead if we fail to end our second attempt to control the personal habits of private citizens. Listen to Enrique Gomez Hurtado, a former high court judge from Colombia who still has shrapnel in his leg from a bomb sent to kill him by the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. In 1993, his country was a free-fire zone not unlike Mexico today, and Gomez issued this chilling -- and prescient -- warning to an international drug policy conference in Baltimore:
"The income of the drug barons is greater than the American defense budget. With this financial power they can suborn the institutions of the State, and if the State resists . . . they can purchase the firepower to outgun it. We are threatened with a return to the Dark Ages."
Ending prohibition won't solve our drug problem. But it will save us from something far worse. And it will put drug addiction back in the hands of the medical profession, where it was being dealt with successfully -- until we called in the cops.
By Mike Gray
April 16, 2009