On the Drug War

A Fight To The Last Mexican

“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it the superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”

So wrote Thomas Paine against monarchy, the morally bankrupt ethos of his day.  But then, it was a less fearful time, and the political leaders of Paine’s moment were scarcely risk-adverse.  Indeed, they were willing to address the moral questions before them to the point of treason.

Not so today, when we can hold a national political contest and neither candidate — nor their respective parties — can find the courage to speak a word about the policy disaster and dishonorable fraud that is the American drug war.

So here, for the hell of it – and because it can never happen in American political discourse – let’s take a solitary moment to be honest with ourselves about why we remain addicted to drug prohibition.

Addicted is the precise word, too, because as any twelve-step survivor can relate, a sure sign of addiction is when one keeps doing the same self-destructive things and expecting a different result.

Surely, we can’t believe any longer that we are preventing much in the way of drug abuse.  After forty years and billions wasted, the drugs available on any American corner are purer, cheaper, more plentiful than ever.

Nor can we think that we are still standing behind any moral imperative.  What morality remains for a policy that has led to reduced civil liberties for all Americans?  What morality is there in   imprisoning damaged and vulnerable citizens in numbers that make us the jailingest nation ever, locking down more of our population – by per capita and raw numbers both — than Russia, China, Cuba or virtually any other totalitarian state?  And those we jail?  Our prison population is now, by percentage, less violent than at any point in American history – a function of capitalism unleashed, a fixed outcome for a privatized prison industry that now routinely promises growth to Wall Street analysts with every fiscal quarter.

Perhaps we want to pretend that the forces behind drug importation and sale are too violent, too brutal to be appeased, that this war must be ever more ruthless than the gangsterism it breeds.  Yet to what end does our every omnibus crime bill create more astounding penalties?  When traffickers realize that sentencing guidelines demand twenty- and thirty-year prison terms, what results?  Deterrence?  Never.  Given the penalties, greater violence against witnesses and underlings is rationalized, and juveniles – less vulnerable to draconian sentences – are recruited at younger and younger ages to man the corners.  For our every war-like action in this dystopic prohibition, the corresponding escalation is certain and immutable.

And now comes Mexico.

Having embraced the American drug war, having taken our dollars to battle the cartels, the northern states of our southern neighbor have become an abattoir.  Fifty thousand bodies in the Mexican streets, and so much drug-war weariness that voters have turned against the incumbent regime and last week restored to power the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which was, in fact, often accused of accommodating, rather than battling, the traffickers.

No longer content to merely blood and jail our own urban poor at record rates, we are now devouring the poor and desperate of a neighboring country.

And why?  Tell the truth:

We do it because we – and the communal reference is not merely to the ruling class, but to the middle- and working-class voters who tolerate such craven dishonor – live in abject fear that if we dare ratchet down our drug war, then drugs themselves will come closer:  Closer to our communities; closer to our schools, our children; closer to our America.

The real risk? In the same way that the psychic effect of terrorism on a population becomes disproportionate to the actual probability of being a victim of terror, so too does our fear of drugs and drug abuse produce grandiose overreaction.

Think otherwise? If you believe for a minute that all of the brutality and lost treasure and human tragedy that underwrites America’s drug war keeps marijuana, or cocaine, or methamphetamine, or heroin from your children, you are entirely naïve enough to soldier in Pharoah’s army.  Because regardless of where your kids go to school, regardless of who they keep for friends, regardless of whatever shaded suburb or gated community you inhabit, the truth is that if they want to get high, they will.  They know where to get it, and yes, it is there to be got.  Everywhere.  We can’t even keep drugs out of our vast prison complex, much less a junior high school; if we can’t win the drug war inside a maximum-security prison, where in society do we expect to emerge victorious?

Yet to preserve the vague and unsubstantiated notion that this prohibition is sheltering us and ours, we have transformed it into an open war on the underclass.  Rather than trust in our parenting, our resources, our values to guard against the actual and proportional risks of dangerous drugs, we have instead been willing to consign the children of West Baltimore or North Philadelphia or East St. Louis to hell on earth.  In places devoid of all other legitimate economic endeavor – places where half the adult males of color no longer have employment – we have rigged the game:  The factories are gone, the warehouses are empty.  Only the corners remain.  There, the only functioning industry gives daily meaning to the other, lost America even as it destroys that part of our nation.  There, we have found a way to hunt, and persecute, and finally, monetize our poor for the benefit of a growth industry that actually spends profits lobbying legislatures for harsher drug statutes and more prison construction.

And now, again, Mexico.

Because it’s no surprise that Americans would brutalize and isolate our own poor, jail even the least violent of them in record numbers, deny them parole, destroy families and fill prisons and wreck state and federal budgets if we thought it even marginally possible that somewhere a middle-class or upper-class kid might not ever be handed a joint.  And given that much, it’s even less remarkable that we are willing to support and fund such butchery among the poor and desperate of another nation altogether.

After all, if we are willing to fight our drug war to the last inner-city American – if we are willing to turn our own ghettoes into no man’s lands and devour the men and women, children and families who live there in the process – why would we hestitate before fighting that same war to the last Mexican?

The new president of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, inherits a dynamic in which his great neighbor to the north is ready to judge him by his commitment to an endless, attritive tragedy.  We are going to shove billions of dollars into his hand and demand that he, too, follow this war to its ugly, diminished returns:  More headless bodies on the streets of Nuevo Laredo and Acapulco; more dead police;  more dead journalists;  more corruption and civil chaos.

If the new president has courage – more courage than us, at least – he will hand the dollars back and say thank you, no mas.  He might point out that it is the American demand for drugs that has done this to his country, his people.  He might argue further that it is our addiction to a dystopic, amoral prohibition that feeds the black-market economy, the venture-risk volatility, the corruption, the gangsterism.

As an intervention of sorts, the new Mexican president might point to Step Eight, the one in which a recovering addict makes a list of those he has harmed and stands willing to make amends to all.  He might point to the northern part of his country, if not to our own American cities.  And then, if for a moment, we let go of our most compulsive fears and begin to honestly calculate the actual cost to our society and to the world as a whole, he might direct us back to Step One – the place of truth where every addict begins an honest journey:

We admit that we are powerless over our addiction, and that our lives have become unmanageable.

Precisely that.




  • I think it was Chomsky who wrote the term “drug war” is linguistically incorrect. Why? You can’t have a war on an inanimate object, it makes no sense. You can only have wars on other people, or nations. Therefore the so-called “drug war” should be renamed to something more appropriate, like “the War on Drug Dealers We Don’t Like” (Big Pharmaceuticals are fine), the war on drug manufacturers who aren’t qualified (Doctors are fine), and, after reading this article, the war on Mexico. That makes more sense…

    Regarding drug legalisation, drugs are already legal. Alcohol and tobacco are both drugs. When people talk about legalising drugs what they’re really saying is “legalising drugs we approve of”. That’s a moral decision, not a logical decision, based on what constitutes a “good drug”. Drugs are awarded this title, according to who prescribes them…

    Is heroin a worse drug than Alcohol? In many ways, no. For one thing, going cold-turkey from an opiate addiction is like a bad case of flu, and unlikely to kill you. Going cold turkey from a serious alcohol problem can kill.

    Instead of debating the “legalise drugs” argument. debate which specific drugs should be legal. Heroin would probably get my vote.

    • By the way, as someone who has struggled with the so-called “disease of addiction”, I disagree with the last sentence, which is step one of the 12-step approach to addiction : “We admit that we are powerless over our addiction, and that our lives have become unmanageable.”

      The 12 steps are pure bullshit. I have serious problems accepting their nonsense approach to addiction, which basically boils down to accepting God “can and will” cure them, if they admit they are weak immoral. Addicts are not “powerless”. Often their lives are not “unmanageable”. With reference to many high-functioning drug users, let’s use Churchill as the perfect example, was his life unmanageable? Was he powerless? But even low bottom drug fiends are still not powerless. Their power over their addiction is diminshed, but they still can get sober if they want to.For addicts who desire to get sober, the one thing they don’t need to hear is that they are “powerless”. On the contrary. They need to believe they are powerful. I suggest anyone who is “working the steps” but finding the whole 12-step paradigm seriously flawed, to consider other ways to conquer addiction. A good starting point is lifering.If you read Martin Nicolaus’ book, empowering your sober self, he nails criticism of the 12 steps :

      Step 1 – you are powerless and out of control. (wrong)
      Step 2 – you are insane. (Wrong)
      Step 3 – you are incompetent (wrong)
      Step 4 – you are morally deficient. (Wrong)
      step 5 – you must confess your wrongs. (Wrong)
      step 6 – your character is defective. Wrong
      step 7 – you are substandard. Wrong
      step 8,9 – you are a menace to others
      step 10 – you’re wrong. Wrong
      step 11 – you’re clueless
      step 12 – to stay sober you must recruit other retrobates to this course of self-flagelation and humiliation.

      I’ve been through the 12 step addiction mill, I’ve had sponsors, I’ve worked the steps, I’ve done 90 meetings in 90 days, I’ve been down on my knees praying to God for salvation, I’ve handed over my will to God, I’ve kept moral inventories up the ying-yang, and I’ve sponsored other addicts, and it didn’t work for me. In fact, attending AA was the worst thing I could have done. In fact, according to AA’s own research, only 5% of addicts get sober in AA. If that is the best medicine for the disease of addiction, it’s virtually worthless.

      What works? Different for different people. But for me, complete abstinence, support from people who don’t believe you are powerless, and a very good understanding of why I took drugs in the first place.

    • Great post, David. I once worked with a former Baltimore City Probation Officer and I remember on saying multiple occasions that I was a fan long before the Wire. You see, for several years I worked as an inpatient drug and alcohol counselor, where some of the most meaningful discussions during group sessions resulted from chapters read from the Corner.

      Here is my take on lunacy we call the drug war: http://connect.forwardmetrics.com/transformation/recycling-only-this-time-with-money-and-property.html

  • People told me all of this a long time ago, about 27 years ago, when I lived in Colombia. Americans have this huge addiction, and Colombians, many of them completely, totally innocent and uninvolved, died and are dying and will continue to die.
    It is well reported in the book “Methland” how the Mexicans narcotraficantes took over from the Coliombians. http://www.methlandbook.com/author/, book is by NIck Reding.
    What a criminal waste of time and energy and money and people’s lives.

  • Many of the drugs come in through CANADA.. Many people think the big problem is in Mexico, when it is not.. Canada has no border lines, no check points, no border patrol.. nothing… Drug traffickers can walk right through the U.S with no problem. The U.S. does not mention this because they want people to think the problem is Mexico. Their excuse is that there is not enough border patrol officers to cover that side of the border.. lies.. they use millions of dollars to patrol Mexican borders, yet nothing in Canadian borders.. so people who say Mexico is the problem and take it out on the Mexican community are ignorant people who do not research or know much about what is really happening. Open your eyes and do your own research.. do not go off of what other idiotic people say or comment..

    • “Canada has no border lines, no check points, no border patrol … nothing.”
      There is a border line. There are customs and immigrations officers at border crossings. I have no idea why you’d say there’s no government presence on the US-Canada border.
      The bridge between Detroit and Windsor carries more commerce on it that passes between all of the US and Japan. Trust me, the government is there.
      That said, there is drug traffic that passes both ways between Canada and the US.
      But no border patrol? Come on.

    • Are you being serious? Of course there is border patrol, check pints etc.! You should really take your own advice from your last line of comment and do some research. Or maybe just think about for 2 seconds. But you’re right, some drugs do come into my country (Canada) from from the U.S. and we export some back as well. Mostly pot but also some ecstasy and coke too. What we get in return from the U.S. is guns. LOTS AND LOTS of guns which the kids here in Toronto use more as a fashion accessory than anything else. But that’s changing too. So yes we have a stupid and irresponsible and dangerous drug war being waged in Canada as well. And of course, mostly everyone knows it can’t be won here either but unfortunately most people think our big brother to the south would never allow us to give up on it. As if we don’t have any right as a sovereign country to make such a decision.

      Great article David.

  • Excuse my question?

    How many of you use o used drugs?

    There is no way to stop the problem under a culture of drug consumption.

    Monterrey, Mexico

  • The bizarre thing about all this is this: Drug use, in percentages, has stayed pretty steady for years. X% will get and stay addicted and will die of it; Y% will use drugs then stop and Z% never will use drugs. Steady numbers with upticks and downticks in use of different drugs as they come into and go out of fashion. That’s it. GAZILLIONS of dollars spent, hundreds of thousands of people killed, imprisoned, etc. and the overall percentages remain the same. Once we realize that, it should be easier to “medicalize” drug use (which should have been done in the first place), i.e.. X% of people will get diabetes and will die of it; Y% will get diabetes, get treatment, take their meds, loose weight and survive; Z% will never get diabetes.

  • One point that I’m surprised hasn’t been raised is this: The drug war is likely making your (American’s) kids less safe in one very real way–if they decide to try drugs, they’re are likely going to end up with some adulterated product, one that is less safe than the actual drug itself, in unadulterated form.

    For example, a Canadian health official recently stated that occasional use of pure MDMA (ecstasy) was not all that harmful, basically the same as a few drinks on the weekend. However, what passes for MDMA currently on the streets is almost never pure (same is true of almost all drugs other than marijuana and mushrooms). And what these drugs are being adulterated with is often far more dangerous than the drugs themselves. This whole problems is do entirely to drugs being illegal and being controlled by criminal elements.

    This is also why decriminalization is a far from optimal approach, as it doesn’t ensure any safety regulation with respect to the drugs, as they’d still be controlled and sold by criminals/cartels. So, for me, the take away is this, by making drugs illegal you are trading some small gain in possibly keeping your kids from doing them, but you’re almost guaranteeing that if they do, they’ll be forced to take a more harmful version of the drug. And this is leaving aside the fact that there is at least strong anecdotal evidence that drugs are easier for kids to get because they are illegal and therefore, sold by criminals. A liquor store clerk checks ID, drug dealers don’t.

  • Follow the money. In addition to the lawyers, politicians, judges, police officers and prison guards who benefit directly from the drug war and thus seek ever-increasing penalties to ensure they have jobs in the future, the profit from drug trafficking has to go somewhere. It goes through places like Wachovia and as long as banks run America, and they do run America, you have the single biggest obstacle to legalization and regulation. A few more thousand Mexicans dead? Not an issue for the banks laundering billions of dollars for the criminals. America does not have the brains or the guts to face this problem directly, and so the blood from the abattoir across the border will slowly seep north. And what is currently confined to Baltimore, Detroit, Oakland and Philadelphia will continue to spread throughout the country. Because America doesn’t have the brains or the guts to face this problem directly, it will get worse before it gets better.

  • Brilliant post. The only reason we have a drug war, and all the foreign wars, and the TSA here at home, is to support the security/industrial complex.

  • First off to Jason. Ron Paul despite what he says about the war on drugs is not a true libertarian for the simple reason that he is pro-life. If he doesn’t care about what someone puts in his or her body, why should he care what someone does with her body as in abortion?
    Secondly as a parent of two grown children I have this to say: All you can do with your children is to teach them how to be good people. You can warn them of the dangers of drugs and alcohol, but eventually that child’s life becomes his or her own. A parent’s job is to raise that child to be a responsible adult. And, despite all that your child can still go off on the rails so to speak. This is why children from so-called “good families” become addicted to drugs. And if a tragedy of this nature just so happened to befall your child, what would you want the outcome to be? Should your child be thrown in jail to fend for him or herself and learn even more criminal ways? Or would you want your child to receive treatment? Me, I’d vote for treatment, but poor families almost never have that option and so their children end up in jail and possibly come out even worse criminals then when they went in. I’ve seen the system work around here and I don’t like it. Zero tolerance ruins kids lives before they even become adults, and once that system gets its hooks into someone, it is really hard to get away from it. It costs families, money, time and heartbreak. In my white working class suburban neighborhood, kids are stopped and frisked by police routinely, and often for no other reason than they were walking down the street being teenagers.
    Once kids reach middle school age, parental influence wanes. Kids become more concerned with their social life and peers more than anything or anyone else. It is a dangerous time in any child’s life.
    So saying you don’t want changes to the drug war because you are a parent is a pitiful, poor excuse. Even the best sometimes get caught up in the cycle of addiction. And if that happens to your child, you will get to see up close and personal how brutal that drug war is.

  • Oh, and BTW, my late wife temped in a San Diego skyscraper for a huge bank which had no branches in San Diego, but which was visited by men with heavy luggage.

  • When every man is allowed to grow whatever he likes in his back yard, 95% of the Drug Problem goes away, and there will be plenty of resources to handle the other 5%. (ex-cop)

  • The only thing we love more than drugs is an enemy, and the War on Drugs gives us a rotating cast of politically expedient villains. Ask yourself, “Quii bono?” “Who benefits?” and you have your answer about why the “war” continues.

  • Completely agree with the thrust of David’s post, and share his outrage over the injustice inflicted in our name in and out of the US over this.

    A lot of careful thought and analysis needs to be done on potential unintended consequences of legalization and what gets included in a legalization program – it’s not obvious whether weed and meth and coke and heroin are four different categories, but they’re surely not one category!

    But there’s no doubt that the burden-of-proof is on the pro-prohibition side to convince us how things could conceivably be worse on balance than the current regime.

    And I think there are at least a couple of reservations against decriminalization in the comments that are founded on misperceptions. The biggest one is the presumption that decriminalization will significantly increase drug abuse. People seem to want to evade David’s argument that “if your kid wants to get high, he probably already is.” The case varies for different drugs to be sure, but I’m generally with DS on this (and I have three children in the most vulnerable age group, the youngest of whom has way too much familiarity with weed). I need some convincing that decriminalization lowers any real barriers to access; I’m not buying that the law establishes any effective barrier. If you think the law is the main defense for your special little ones, I respectfully submit you’re fooling yourself.

    DS makes a rather subtle and necessary point here that shouldn’t be overlooked: people choose NOT to do drugs for a whole variety of reasons, most of which will not go away if the threat of arrest does.

    Here’s a crazy thought: to the extent that drugs really are bad for you, and interfere with your odds of accomplishing your life-goals, a little less hypocrisy and misinformation, and a lot more treatment and public health education might go a long way. And as DS points out, real economic opportunity would do a lot to undermine the appeal of the worst drugs.

    Coming back to the unintended consequences question: I do wonder how much legalizing, say marijuana and coke, would dry up the competition for profits and violence that are tearing northern Mexico apart. If I could go to the produce section of my local grocery store for some organic sensimilla, will the Zetas just move on to something else, and is the market for that something else big enough to fuel a cycle of brutal criminal competition? Seems like meth particularly is a big wildcard here, since I’m not too sure I want that more widely available, and the market is already extensive.

    And naturally we’ll want to regulate anything that is decriminalized, so there will still be a black market channeling stuff to kids, for instance. Are we overlooking the bad consequences that will continue to flow from supplying extra-legal demand?

  • After reading through the various postings, some thoughts: First, congrats to the new parents out there. I’d posit that, in 17 years, you’re not going to be worrying so much about drugs as you will about climate change.

    For all of the money we spend on keeping people from firing up a doobie at will, we’re not spending money on real threats. We’ve created junk science as well (and here, I’d point to the the whole “gateway theory” about marijuana….it’s still around even though it’s been thoroughly debunked as science).

    Marijuana has been the boogeyman all along, because that’s where the numbers are. And yet, no one has died from it. Tylenol has more deaths per year. But something like 800,000 people a year are in the criminal justice system because of marijuana. That’s insane.

    If Gary McCollough could have gotten his shot, safely and legally from a health clinic, he could have been a productive member of society. His shot would have been regulated.

    The other drugs, especially meth, I don’t see ever being legal. But treating the poor bastards addicted to it as human beings in need of help would be a tremendous step in the right direction.

    Remember back when the FCC lifted the prohibitions on condom advertising? Oh my, you’d have thought the world was going to end! Everybody was worried that teenage sex would skyrocket. Did it? I think legalizing marijuana and decriminalizing other, more serious drugs, would work a bit like that. I don’t see removing legal barriers the same as “encouraging” at all. There are several new casinos in our state and I have haven’t been in one of them.

    Advertising for cigarettes has been sharply curtailed and much of the extra tax money put on them has been funneled into education, which has been very successful. Many fewer people smoke cigarettes now than ever before (in America, anyway). There are models for change out there. Mostly in Europe, but they exist.

    • Where is your data that the education against nicotine has been successful?

      I would genuinely like to see it because the data I have been using from 2004 doesn’t indicate this. More people are likely to attempt to quite in the face of education, yet we still have relatively consistent numbers on nicotine uptake.

      Unless your data shows otherwise.

      • Excuse my idiocy.

        Where are your data, rather than is.

        “where’s the goddam copy editor?”

        • Adrian, my figures are older than yours. I was using Mike Gray’s Drug Crazy research: Only 15.5 percent of California adults smoked regularly in 1995, down from 26 percent in 1984. The sentence that I highlighted reads….”California cut smoking 40% in a single decade by using cigarette taxes to finance antismoking ads.”

  • Great post. I see an interesting parable for the self-perpetuating nature of the war on drugs in an early scene from The Wire. It is the case of Cass and Sterling, who D’Angelo catches stealing from the stash. It starts because Stringer and Avon can’t explain why the lowrises get raided by Omar and then police. They jump to the simple conclusion that somebody is snitching, so Stringer orders D’Angelo to withhold pay from the young hoppers who run the corner (Stringer explains that they can get away with this because real employment or education are not options for these kids). The hope is that anybody who still has money will be the snitch.
    When D’Angelo finds that Cass has extra money, it seems that she is the snitch. But he later tells Wallace that she and Sterling were stealing the money to feed themselves (he catches her with groceries, not luxury items). The theft was a direct result of the very withholding that was supposed to reveal the snitch. Instead of revealing an outlaw, the plan created two new ones.
    It is self-fulfilling prophecy at its best, and it speaks to the way the War on Drugs, the simplistic law-enforcement-centered approach to a public health issue, ends up generating the very thing it seems to be fighting.

  • As with terrorism, fear is the primary argument in defense of the status quo. We are much less the land of the free because we some time ago became less the home of the brave. We now insist every danger be throttled for us, or at least for our government to give the impression it is being throttled. There was a time when Americans faced problems and found solutions instead of just declaring war on them and wringing their hands when things don’t get better.

  • Everything in this post together with those said by you before on various platforms completely describes the whole dynamic of a problem. And I tend to agree very much. What I do not see is the solution, because if these drugs were not illegal (which I think I heard you say you would go for in a “heartbeat”) then what’s stopping capitalism blow into motion on yet another field. Companies – just like the prison industry now – would lobby for more and more territory (getting closer to school, getting more and more advertisement space/possibilities). I’m assuming here that even if drug trafficking would be decriminalized there would many restrictions in the beginning that would hold back a brand new market with great financial room for a grow.
    I’m seeing a dual problem:
    if it’s illegal then there are some industries that can profit from it greatly so they will pay huge amount of money to maximize profit. (Making it more illegal, more punishable etc.)
    if it’s legal then there are or will be some industries that can profit from it greatly so they will spend huge amount of money and time to maximize profit, to increase customer numbers.
    I’m from Central-Eastern Europe, so it’s completely reasonable to assume I don’t see the whole picture so feel free to enlighten me: what am I missing here? What would be an – at least seemingly perfect/working – solution?

    • You’re argument here is a basic slippery slope argument.

      And in this case it rests on the asumption that legalization equals pure unbridled capitalism unleashed. I don’t think that needs to be the case. Alcohol is proof, prohibition was overturned in favour of regulated, legal commerce.

      Washington state is going through this exercise right now. They’ve voted to legalize pot. Telling in their method is that first it’s legal to poses in small quantities, then they will figure out how to regulate the production and sale of larger quantities.

      I can’t wait to see what David’s take on the situation in Washington now that they have legalized, and what action Washington DC will take.

  • I’m less sympathetic to this argument now than I was before I became a parent.

    In the abstract, I agree; as a cost-effective, society-improving mechanism, the drug war is failing, or has failed. Thanks to you and your people for The Wire, I saw some of that, and read further and learned more as I went.

    In the concrete, though… by giving substances the imprimatur of legality–even highly-regulated legality–we’re tacitly encouraging their use. As a parent I can try to teach my kids that cigarettes are disgusting and alcohol is destructive (and tastes nasty, but that’s apparently just me), but images for those substances are on every billboard and magazine page. “Dad says it’s bad, but everyone else says it’s fine.” In reality, barring a tragedy, a single cigarette or a bottle of beer isn’t going to hurt my kid (when they’re old enough for their systems to handle it), but I’d like to be able to set the groundwork for a healthier life going forward. Corporate America has all the cards in this respect, though.

    Drugs… sure, they’re outlaw cool, and sure, they’re readily available, and social permission from their peers (dammit) is going to get my kids to try them, in all likelihood. But there are no Big Business billboards for high-grade smack. Kellogg’s isn’t selling Bud Flakes on TV. Athletes aren’t endorsing steroids in Sports Illustrated. Etc.

    Of course, de-criminalization isn’t the same thing as legalization. And I’m sympathetic with the Bunny Colvins of the world, and I could probably get behind a society where possession of small amounts of pot or whatever for personal use doesn’t get you in trouble beyond a twenty-buck fine and a court appearance. But, then, I have to worry that that’s a stepping-stone to Bayer Black Tar.

    All that said, do I have the right to entire federal agencies and massive portions of police departments across the country just so my precious little angels don’t fall into wicked ways? I don’t. But at the same time, I’m not ungrateful that the money’s being spent that way.

    • I am the parent of an 18-year-old and a two-year-old. I take very seriously the practical threat of drugs and drug abuse. To that end, we try — as parents — to address the issue and the reality in meaningful ways.

      But we are not willing — for the benefit of making our children even modestly safer — to consign hundreds of thousands of other men, women and children to the dystopic and brutal realities of drug warfare. My children mean the world to me, but if the cost of giving them a bit more marginal protection from the realities of the world is fifty thousand dead people in Mexico and millions of the American underclass consigned to prison for non-violent offenses — if my children’s lives are predicated on that kind of societal cost, then how dp I look them in the eye without shame.

      What does that say to me as a citizen? What does that say about my regard for more vulnerable Americans, or Mexicans, and the lives to which I am consigning their children?

      • > But we are not willing — for the benefit of making our children even modestly safer — to consign hundreds of thousands…

        That’s completely fair and I respect it. Obviously, or I wouldn’t be reading your blog. And you’re certainly–as a figure of some reknown–in a different position than I am; frankly, your opinion matters more on the world stage than does mine. So you, being a person of conscience, probably feel the need to hold yourself to a higher standard than do I; I feel like I can afford to be more selfish and still feel like a reasonably conscientious human being. Because, dammit, these are my kids. I’m going to countenance them doing enough risky stuff (want to bungee jump? climb mountains? read subversive literature, join the peace corps, blow out your eardrums playing punk? go for it…) without wanting society to openly embrace the stuff that I see as really destructive to body and soul.

        How do I look them in the eye without shame? Because I’d know that I — liberal do-gooder that I might otherwise be — value them more than I do any other 50, 500, or 5 million people. Given a choice (and I’m being WAAAAY over the top here, I realize) between letting someone else kill 50,000 strangers’ children or me personally cheering on someone else’s aiming of a speeding car at my own kids (assuming they’re not mass murderers, etc.)… well, the way I see it, that’s not even a choice. Abraham, I ain’t. Would I give my own life? Maybe. But my kids? How could I look them in the eye and tell them I’d do *that*?

        All that said, I’m equivocating here in my head, typing this, thinking of Germany in the Time of Godwin’s Rule, putting the abstract above against the concrete reality of the folks who hid the Jews and helped them escape, and the way they jeopardized their own families to help the people they helped. I don’t know my genealogy well enough to know if I’d be around now if not for those folks. Either way, I honestly don’t have an answer to that; I’d think myself a horrid person if I wouldn’t help those people, but when you compare the scenarios, they’re not that different.

        At the end of the day, my opinion, and vote, don’t mean a pile of {mumblemumble}, so it doesn’t much matter what I think; I can look my kids in the eye because my job and my situation allow me the luxury of not having to take a side. What kind of a human does that make me? A human human, I suppose.

        Thanks for the prompt to introspection, David.

        • I guess the other issue I’d raise with you, Jon, is that not everyone uses the psychoactive drugs that are currently legal. Alcohol and tobacco marketing do amount to a vast sum of money thrown at getting people to consume these drugs, but there are still plenty of people who don’t.

          I’m not 100% convinced that the Heroin Marketing Board would have disproportionately greater success, if it were allowed to exist.

          • Another fair point, and it does re-emphasize what David is talking about – what happens when you let the worst fears govern.

            I’ve grown up in the culture we’ve all grown up in , and I’ve never tried tobacco and have tried alcohol only in sips throughout the years. In me, those habits were initially born of disgust (tobacco: my mother was a smoker) and fear (alcohol, and other drugs: loss of control, embarrassment, my own addictive personality). But I’ve watched peers become alcoholics and have promising futures derailed by substance abuse, just as I’ve watched others very successfully drink without becoming alcoholics and smoke pot without compromising their ability to function.

            To me, removing my personal storylines, I believe that a culture that facilitates addiction to vectors (alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, gambling) known to be addictive is a culture that isn’t looking out for the best interests of its citizens en masse. Instead, it’s sacrificing the good of the vulnerable for the good of the investors and the wealthy. Driving down the highway, I see signs for the Borgata with sexy men and women having a fantastic time, and the tiny tagline at the bottom reading “problem gambler? Call…” and I know that an awful lot of people are going to lose their houses before they even consider calling that number.

            Back when cocaine was legal, it was in Coca Cola. Bayer sold heroin over the counter, if I remember the history right. How can we trust a culture focused on maximizing profit at the expense of the individual to somehow restrain itself when it’s given the opportunity to wreak havoc with no penalties or civic censure?

            (This is completely aside from the question of stuff like ubiquitous corporate drug testing. If the drug testing continues (and it would; no one wants and addict handling money), and the base of drug use widens (and it would; not 100%, certainly, and maybe not even 75%, but certainly 50% of individuals as casual users is forseeable), what’s the impact there to our economy?)

            • “How can we trust a culture focused on maximizing profit at the expense of the individual to somehow restrain itself when it’s given the opportunity to wreak havoc with no penalties or civic censure?”

              Why give it those opportunities? It’s a false dichotomy that you have to have either current prohibition on one hand or a free-market free-for-all on the other. Check out the ‘Blueprint for Regulation’ produced by the Transform Drug Policy Foundation in the UK.

        • How do you build a society if no one believes in a utilitarian principle? How do you fail to see that your neighbor’s children — and by extension, those of people who are different from you and who you have never met — mean as much to them as yours do to you? Of course, your own children are more precious to you. Of course, your heart goes where it does. But if you as a citizen seek to build a society based on your worst and most indulgent fears — rather than on the dignity and human worth of all — then you can’t very well complain if others eventually maneuver for their own at the expense of yours.

          Is this a republic? is there an American collective? Or is it a Darwinian experiment, a social Ponzi scheme to be played out against the most vulnerable classes? Because that’s all the drug war is at this point — a selfish war against the underclass by those above them, who would, from fear, destroy hundreds of thousands of other families for even the smallest modicum of local, additional security.

          If that is us, then we are no longer the last, best hope for anything in this world. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither. And to take it a step further, I’d argue that those citizens who would trade the dignity and security of fellow citizens to assure themselves and their own of some special, protected status are not really fit to be citizens of a republic.

          Like any parent, I live for my kids. But I acknowledge that I am not unique. And I am willing to trust in my children, my parenting, my resources and my values to keep the drug culture from consuming their lives. I find those things to be the only true and effective weapons with which to defend them. And I am certainly not willing to consign others to another, abandoned America, or to a third-world hell, for the sake of a drug war that pretends to build a fence around me and mine. We are our brother’s keeper, or if we deny that on every basic level, then we are leaving our children to an uglier, brutish world. And it is that legacy for which we should be — as parents and citizens both — entirely ashamed.

          • > But if you as a citizen seek to build a society {of any type, really} then you can’t very well complain if others eventually maneuver for their own at the expense of yours.

            They’re going to do that anyway. And when the founding fathers decided to step away from kings’n’things, that’s what they explicitly decided was acceptable. On the other hand, the complaining is part of it too.

            >Because that’s all the drug war is at this point — a selfish war against the underclass by those above them, who would, from fear, destroy hundreds of thousands of other families for even the smallest modicum of local, additional security.

            I cede the point willingly; that’s a very good description of the situation as I understand it.

            How, though, does it differ from the alternative? Let’s postulate a society in which all stigma has been removed from currently-illegal mind-altering substances.

            In this theoretical society:

            + New imprisonment vastly declines. Existing prisoners are either released in a flood (with the wealth of system-exploiting knowledge they’ve picked up in prison), or, as per the current standard, serve their sentences (and resent even more each day of them, conceivably leading to an uptick in hostile behavior both in the system and when they are released)

            + The corporate prison system collapses (good riddance). Those who depended on the prison system for employment (food services, guards, health systems, uniform manufacturers) are largely rendered superfluous to the workforce. This may be an acceptable cost; I don’t know the numbers. There are sure to be downstream effects, though, much as there would have been if GM was allowed to go bankrupt.

            + Individuals who would have been stigmatized by drug-related imprisonment are largely left to become productive. This one is all upside.

            + Street-level dealing, and the related violence, will almost certainly decrease. I don’t see a downside here.

            + Product purity and quality control goes up; you can’t sue your local corner boy, but you certainly can sue Pfizer.

            + The dealers corporatize. This may have locally beneficial effects (War On Drugs helicopters stop stripping the coca fields), but it also would seem to ensure that folks who currently grow for the drug trade will almost certainly not diversify to more socially-productive crops. To think that abuses and terror will stop with legalization, though, is laughable, (c.f., the diamond trade). It also rewards these high-level warlords, when J&J makes a deal with the most-connected supplier, well, we know who that’s going to be.

            + Social acceptability goes up. We’re already a pill-happy society; when the pills actually *make* you happy, it’s going to become more prevalent.

            + Corporates, given control of an authorized addictive substance, have a field day. Employment up. Personal destruction up.

            + Tax revenues go up, allowing short-term good either in the form of personal tax cuts, infrastructure upgrades, school funding, etc. Also short term bad, in the form of kickbacks, bid-rigging, bribery, etc. As we’ve seen with the lottery and casinos, though, tax revenues are politician crack. The borders of acceptability *will* continue to expand, and the problems caused by the substances themselves will continue to multiply.

            So how does this play out long-term? I’m not smart enough to figure that out. Knowing people like I do, I’d say though that the vast likelihood is that instead of the underclass being exploited by the prison system, they’d be exploited by the pharmacology and government system. New name, very similar result.

            I guess what I’m saying is that it’s not *just* about me and mine – I’d be more willing to take the risk of my family if I became convinced that a change in the status quo would benefit the vast majority of the country. Thus far, I’m not convinced.

            (Which isn’t to say, David, that it’s your burden to convince me. I mean, feel free… but you’ve got stuff to do :).

            Again, thanks. Even if we never end up agreeing on the subject, I appreciate being made to think about it.

        • Your point is an interesting one, Jon. As a new father myself, I worry what sort of society will be around in 17 years when watching over his decisions and providing fatherly advice will not be as readily possible. I’m quite sure that there is nothing the government can do that will help guide my son to make the correct decisions about drugs and life. As individuals we are responsible for our actions and at the end of the day all we can do as parents is provide our kids with the best possible knowledge and hope they make the right choices.

          It shouldn’t matter what political affiliation any of us have. If we as citizens of this country who strive to move it forward with the ideas that our founders laid down for us can’t call bullshit on this drug war, or really any war in the last 40 years this country has fought, then we deserve the oppressive government we have and will have for many decades.

          • > I’m quite sure that there is nothing the government can do that will help guide my son to make the correct decisions about drugs and life.

            We’re going to have to disagree here, I think. Because this is David’s blog and not mine, I won’t go deeply into the problems I have with libertarian philosophy, but in short, I think that humans are like life anywhere; we expand until we reach a hard boundary that we cannot cross or circumvent. Unlike cucumbers or cheetahs, however, humans are endlessly ingenious, and make mockery of most so-called boundaries. As I see it, then, we therefore must restrict ourselves through laws and conventions and institutions; for the good of all, we must each sacrifice some of our individual liberties. And since we, being who and what we are, will not voluntarily sacrifice these liberties for the good of all, we must rely on an outside agency to do so. Religion is one venue, but that’s problematic for a number of reasons, so it would seem to fall to secular civic authority, invested by its electorate with the power to govern.

            • sacrificing liberty for the so called “greater good” is something our founders warned against and wrote extensively about . The problem I see w/ sacrificing individual liberty is that power is handed over to the central planners and results speak for themselves-

              The Patriot Act
              war on drugs
              war on poverty
              war on terror
              wars in Afgahinstan, Iraq, Vietnam
              The Federal Reserve
              Homeland Security
              our tax system
              Torture, Kidnapping and Detention
              Warrantless Wiretapping
              Police State
              and the list goes on…

              Unlike folks on the left, I have deep fear of government. I see no reason why people can’t depend on themselves, their famalies, churches and neighbors to keep the fabric of a community togther. Anytime government gets involved, we get rhetoric like “the war on drugs”, when in reality it is nothing more then a war on the weakest part of society to generate revenue & enhance political power.

              There is a good piece in the dollar viganlante today that is worth the read- http://www.dollarvigilante.com/blog/2012/7/10/oligarchy-in-the-ussa.html

              • In short, I don’t see why I should trust {you} to respect {my} rights. A trusted third party (I cede problems with government as trusted) is the only logical way to make sure it sticks.

                Church works if you’re religious. Neighbors work if you’re neighborly. Families work if you can trust them. But government (ideally) works just because you live there.

  • This topic branches off into so many seperate topics I feel as if one could write a novel as a post.

    First off David, I’m happy to see such a terrific topic of conversation. Was hoping you post something about the O’s being buyers at the All-Star break for the first time since the Schmoke Mayoral days, but this is much better discussion.

    In response to your post, I have some points and objections I’d like to add

    1. The only political candidate to talk about the drug war being the fraud that it is, is Ron Paul. Dr. Paul has done this for decades and spoken the truth about it in plain and simple terms. He also has brought up a great points about how pharmaceutical companies & the drugs they produce have killed many more people in this country then heroin, cocaine, meth, etc. Which begs the question, why do we spend billions of dollars killing, prosecuting & imprisoning people for their roles in the so called “drug war” and yet not talk about the tax breaks or crony capitalist deals the big drug companies get from our politicians?

    2. While we are not a totalitarian state like China, Russia, etc., America resembles more of a fascist state then a democracy and certainly a republic like some think. It hasn’t happened overnight, this has been slowly developed for years by the left in this country. When Marxism was rejected by the world after WWI, the Communists, Socialists, Central Planners, Collectivists, et. al. that embraced Marxism as their religion knew they in order for their idealogy to work they would have to dissemble the family unit & get people dependent on government. I’d say that they’ve been pretty successful based on what we are seeing in society now.

    3. I’m sorry, but how in the world is Capitalism to blame for our prison population? That is always the argument that I hear from liberals, but it is ass backwards IMO. When you have prison guards in California making $150k+ per year with cushy benefits and unsustainable pensions, and then you look how their legal system is set up (cough, cough, 3 strikes and your out law), it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that government has rigged the system for jobs and profit in that state (and many around the country). Free market Capitalism is not to blame for the drug war. Bad policy by government, the welfare state created by Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and perpetuated by politicians (off all parties) for the last 30+ years & the fact that the drug war if good for business if your a prison guard, attorney, judge, proesecuter, cop, DA, et al. is to blame. The Police State we currently have in today’s society resembles those countries you mentioned. We’re dealing in a corrupt system where the politicians are in the process of transfering wealth to the uber rich right before our own eyes.

    4. If we’re going to talk about jobs going overseas, then we have to talk about our monetary policy. The Federal Reserve and what they do is at the core of that argument. Their excessive money printing for decades and resulting massive deficits have forced the devaluation of the american dollar. It is therefore cheaper for us to trade with China or Vietnam because their costs of labor is much less. We are a nation of consumers because quite frankly it is more profitable for Wall St. & the banks & the lazy massses we have in america to do it that way. They can print money, hand out a small portion of it to the entitlement state to keep people from revolting, all the while lining their pockets with money and more importanly power. As much as I disagree w/ President Obama on issues, Bernanke & his ass clowns from JP Morgan & Goldman Sachs should be feeling the heat about the current state of affairs. Obama is just the puppet for these guys. Bernanke is the guy with the real power. The Fed hits a few keys and wah-lah we have another 3 billion to fight the war on drugs thru the dept of homeland security. It also should be noted that Greenspan is one of the the biggest villians of the last century.

    Besides that… I agree wholeheartedly with you about the colossal failure the drug war has been. Occasionally I’ll drive home via Wilkens Ave. to Monroe St. to Baltimore or Pratt St. and see what the effects of what this war has had. It sickens me and makes me beg the question of how in the hell did we get here? What is it going to take to change the course of our society. I realize that we cannot turn our backs on these people, but does anyone really think that walking thru West Baltimore or West Philadelphia and handing out hundred dollar bills & free healthcare to the poor is going to change their situation?

    At this point I’m convinced that our monetary system has to collaspe for any real change to occur.

    • I would argue against many of your points, but I don’t have all the facts and I don’t feel it’d be my place to do so, however this statement:
      “When Marxism was rejected by the world after WWI”
      really needs either an elaboration or some serious fixing cause this is at its present form simply not true. Look at Eastern Europe until the 1990s.
      (I would also make a point that the philosophy Marx introduced is in fact not flawed and perfectly sits in line with the philosophy propagated by many others before him about equal opportunities and equal rights and giving power to the ‘popolus’ the underclass which was historically always abused. Socialism did not work because (among other things) it did not follow Marx’s writings: in every socialist country the leaders (and pretty much everyone with a little power over the other) behave exactly the same as the people who the first communist and Marxists rose against.)

  • Fifty percent of Americans would like to see marijuana legalized. Marijuana is the big domino in the whole “war on drugs”. I disagree with your conclusion, that it’s somehow “us”, the American people, who go along. It’s not. Just as Wall Street is robbing the average American blind, so too is our legislature, who are bought and paid for to enact the draconian laws.

    For profit prisons.
    Drug testing industry.
    Pharmaceutical industry.
    Liquor industry.

    The list of wrongs done in the name of the drug war is a very long one. Yet the average American can only choose between 2 candidates that are underwritten by the above industries.

    The DEA is killing people in Honduras. The most promising means to an end of the drug war comes, not from any measure of sanity among our lawmakers, but from the countries who are tired of marching to the D.C. tune.

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