The deadly failure of drug policy in the Americas

On March 22, 1921, Stafford E. Beckett, 31, an agent with the United States Department of the Treasury, Border Division, and his partner, Federal Prohibition Agent Charles A. Wood, 35, were shot to death as they attempted to serve a search warrant on whiskey smugglers at a ranch in El Paso, Texas, near the U.S. / Mexican border. The agents were following a tip that 35 cases of Mexican whiskey were being sent across the border into the United States.

At that time, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which had come into force in January 1920, prohibited the manufacture, sale, and importation of liquor. Thus, Agent Beckett and Agent Wood became two of the first law enforcement casualties of America’s Federal attempts at prohibiting psychoactive substances. Opiates had been locally outlawed in San Francisco in 1875. Despite subsequently being federally prohibited, heroin remains today a popular and dangerous drug on the street in most American cities.

Prohibition reduced liquor consumption but created underground and widespread criminal activity — organized crime — which used firearm violence to avoid arrest and prosecution. Prohibition, ended in 1933, was difficult to enforce, bloody, and a complete failure and Americans should have learned from the experience.

I joined the Torrance Police Department in 1986. The Torrance Police Department was a professional, progressive (and aggressive) agency with the blessing of a stable tax base and an educated, involved citizenry that trusted the police department to do the right thing. It was the mid-eighties, and drugs were viewed as the destruction to life and community.

I was a true believer. I knew from my university education that drugs were illegal due to the psychoactive effects they had on people, and that people under the influence were dangerous and a threat to civilized society. Drug addiction was a character issue. Drug enforcement made sense to me as a policy and social issue.

I made hundreds of arrests of persons for simply being under the influence of a controlled substance, and this charge guaranteed the arrestee 90 days in Los Angeles County jail.  Possession of even a small amount of powdered coke was a felony according to the California Health and Safety code, and thousands of people actually went to state prison for cocaine possession in the 80s and into the 90s. The federal crack cocaine sentencing disparity sent thousands of young men, mostly black, to federal prisons for lifetimes. That policy has since been revised, but it remains as one of the most destructive policies of the drug war.

The first Colombians arrived in Torrance, Ca. in the late 1970s. The Colombians had shipped kilos of cocaine to the Los Angeles area around 1977 and it had really taken off. Southern California was a lucrative marketplace. The Colombians made millions from selling kilos through middlemen first in the suburbs, and then in the urban core of Los Angeles.

The Colombians enjoyed the year-round spring climate of the Los Angeles area, similar to that in Medellin. The distributors would rent apartments along Anza Avenue in South Torrance and maintain low profiles, while coordinating large cocaine deliveries throughout the state. The mules of the distribution networks generally settled in the suburbs of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, because the mountains that surrounded the valley reminded them of Bogota. The Colombians felt at home.

Municipal police departments picked up on the trend and, in the 80s and 90s,  sought and received federal funding to form and militarize anti-narcotics teams. Soon the evening news channels were cluttered with local, state and federal agencies serving “high risk” drug warrants. There were billions of dollars of resources being allotted for equipment and overtime, yet there was relatively little dedicated to treatment for users. In my patrol beat of four square miles, I found myself arresting the same 20 drug addicts over and over.

In addition to that, residential burglaries and “commercial boosting” or professional shoplifting were constant in my residential neighborhoods and malls. The cost of the drugs was kept relatively high by interdiction, resulting in frequent burglaries, check fraud, and many business and street robberies committed by those who had reached the desperation point in their addiction.

I came to realize 70% of my city’s crime was driven by addiction. Then there were the constant social consequences of addiction: domestic violence, divorce, abandonment and abuse of children, severe health issues, depression and suicide. Much of it came back to the all-consuming nature of drug addiction — and incarceration without treatment was the standard response from the criminal justice system.

There is recent hope in this area, at least in California. The Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act, also known as Proposition 36, was passed by 61% of California voters on November 7, 2000. This vote permanently changed state law to allow first- and second-time non-violent, simple drug possession offenders the opportunity to receive substance abuse treatment instead of incarceration. Proposition 36 went into effect on July 1, 2001, with $120 million for treatment services allocated annually for five years. California, however, is near insolvency.

The above problems are the social pathologies that are spun off the prohibition of controlled substances. It was clear to me that the drug war was being lost, and that without radical public policy changes, things would deteriorate. It became clear to me the issue was always going to be about demand for drugs, and that the medical model of addiction was the appropriate strategy to employ.

From the U.S. cocaine trade, billions in cash was laundered, sent home and reinvested in hotels and casinos. Cartagena actually started looking like “little Miami Beach.” Domestically, the violence and murder in places like Detroit, Los Angeles, and Oakland skyrocketed over the competition among gangs to secure, dominate, and maintain rock cocaine sales. Cities like Omaha, Nebraska and Anchorage, Alaska had significant street drug problems. Dozens of American law enforcement officers lost their lives in domestic drug battles during the 1990s.

It should be noted that President Santos of Colombia claimed recently that 240 Colombian police officers were assassinated by illegal armed groups in 2010. As reported recently by Colombia Reports, Jorge Restrepo, conflict analyst for the Resource Center for Conflict Analysis (Cerac) estimated that by the end of the year “about a thousand” policemen and soldiers will have been killed by guerrillas.

I don’t believe any cop, from any country, should die for drug enforcement. I can say that the terrible social pathologies and law enforcement deaths here and in Colombia and Mexico have completely changed my mind about American public policy concerning narcotics.

To demonstrate the deadly southern exposure to the Mexican drug madness, 6,000 people have been reported murdered in 2008 as Mexican drug violence pushes into Guatemala. As reported in La Plaza, Mexican researcher Albert Ochoa, using an artificial-intelligence model, projected that 5,000 people will die from the violence in the city of Ciudad Juarez during 2011. Many of these people will probably be murdered in the process of securing drugs for predominantly foreign customers.

The coordinated U.S. and Colombian anti-smuggling plan of the early 1990s that succeeded in forcing a change in drug routes from the Caribbean to the Pacific, and caused the cartels to decrease their exposure to losses and extradition, had immense consequences. It was cheaper (and safer) to pay the Mexicans in cash or product to move the product north to market through the tougher (and more profitable) corridors of Mexico.

Tragically, this tactical decision set the stage for the subsequent wars among the six Mexican cartels.

Stratfor, an Austin, TX based global intelligence company that monitors Mexican drug violence, estimates that 27,240 people died in Mexico in drug-related killings from 2006 through December 13, 2010. This period would correspond with the time in which Mexican President Calderon began and prosecuted his war on the Mexican cartels.

So, will the raging worldwide demand for drugs ever end? This is doubtful. As long as there is psychological (and physiological) craving for altered states, then there will be a vigorous drug trade.

You see, the war on drugs begins in our minds.

According to Ronald K. Siegel, a UCLA psychopharmacologist, the need to get high, to alter our current state, is our “fourth drive,” a biological drive equivalent to our drives for food, sleep and sex. Siegel believes that throughout history people have always sought out plants, alcohol, and other mind-altering substances to get high. The fourth drive is a natural part of our biology, “creating the irrepressible demand for intoxicating substances”

Because of this natural need to reach altered states, I believe that public drug policy should be focused on state-sponsored pharmacies, much like the state-run liquor stores that exist in states like Idaho. America has the pharmacological know-how to grow, produce, and synthesize marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and other psycho-active drugs people crave.

The “law enforcement-industrial complex” is already up and running and could handle any enforcement issues related to minors using adult substances or people operating vehicles while under influence or acting out in public. We have the expertise and the economic savvy to remove the profit from the drug cartels and produce substances that are safe for recreational use. The key though, is to produce substances cheaply enough, and tax them reasonably so that their price still falls below what a black market producer, a cartel, could afford to market.

Removing the profit from cartels will effectively destroy them.

Related posts

Scholars call on the British government to protect right to peaceful protest and support meaningful dialogue in Colombia

Foreign journalists reject weekly Semana’s accusations against colleague

Stop the violence against those who protest in Colombia