It’s Time to Legalize the Debate on the War on Drugs

Posted by By at 17 February, at 09 : 16 AM Print

Way back in time there was bitter political divide erected around the issue of illegal immigration. Much of the debate was a necessary dialogue on citizenship and access to benefits. Other self-proclaimed patriots were preoccupied with seizing swarms of illegals mowing our yards, and ferreting out politicians who sinned by having their kids raised by a Latina nanny.

Lost in the commotion was a controversial voice from an embattled border town. You probably forget or never heard of this politician. After all, two years in modern American politics is the historical equivalent of a millennium.

What ever happened to the guy who set of a media and political frenzy by proposing America end the prohibition of illegal drugs and deploy a novel, cooperative approach to combatting the most menacing illegal immigrant – the invasion of Mexican drugs?

While Lou Dobbs left CNN in 2009, El Paso city councilman Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) survived a national maelstrom and is still in office.

On January 7, 2009, Rep. Beto O’Rourke attempted political suicide. He became an instant celebrity when he sponsored an amendment to a resolution seeking support and solidarity with neighboring Juárez’s battle against the Mexican drug cartel. The resolution called on the federal government to assist Mexico in clamping down on gun-running and money laundering.

So far, so good.

Then O’Rourke inserted language saying what many in America had been thinking about marijuana: It’s time for an “honest open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics.” Council unanimously approved the resolution, the mayor vetoed it, but 70% of the residents support the legislation.

Then the tea began to boil, Lou Dobbs went on the offensive, and El Paso quickly supplanted Hazleton (2,082 miles north of the border) as ground zero.

Under intense political pressure, four members of the council switched their votes and supported the veto. “When you receive calls, and you have both members of the state and federal level telling you that you might lose funding for projects that are of vital importance for El Paso then you know you have to stop and think,” said city Representative Eddie Holguin.

This in not just another drug story spiced-up with violence. The resolution by El Paso’s Border Relations Committee called for federal intervention to quell the crime wave in Juárez that claimed 1,600 lives in 2008.

To put that in perspective, the number of murders in Juárez was almost as twice as many as committed in New York City (836), and exceeded the total number of murders committed in the entire state of Texas (1,373) in 2008.

The murder rate in Juárez has grown at an obscene pace. In 2009, there were 2,600 homicides – most unsolved – that included 107 women, 85 children and 49 police officers. Last year, the narco-turf war pushed the number of homicides up to 3,075. It’s so pathetic that civic and business leaders have asked for UN intervention.

El Paso is not a sleepy little border town;It’s under siege and situated next to a shooting range.

El Paso is also not Branson. The American city is removed from the normal AAA vacation itinerary. The city is 392 miles form W’s ranch in Crawford, 553 miles from a reenactment at the Alamo, 569 miles from a tail- gate party at Texas Stadium, and 672 miles to Enron’s headquarters in Houston.

Can you imagine the reaction if 1,6oo people were murdered across the street from the Alamo? I assume there would be national outrage if 2,600 Americans were whacked outside of a Cowboy’s football game.

But El Paso is not the twin to the murder capital of the world. The city of just over 600,000 is a statistical crime anomaly: There were 18 murders in El Paso, in 2008. Four out of five residents are Hispanic (mostly Mexican), more than 25% of its population are “foreigners”, and a large number of El Paso’s inhabitants are illegal immigrants. According to the high priests of talk radio, this demographic should make El Paso a veritable Marseilles on the Rio Grande.

But drugs, immigration and violence don’t go together when an emerging community is trying to establish a foothold on the America Dream. According to Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University. “If you want to find a safe city, first determine the size of the immigrant population. If the immigrant community represents a large proportion of the population, you’re likely in one of the country’s safer cities. San Diego, Laredo, El Paso — these cities are teeming with immigrants, and they’re some of the safest places in the country.”

While O’Rourke’s verbiage may have been clumsy, there is wisdom in assessing the tools, cost, and efficacy of America’s current anti-drug strategy.

Gil Kerlikowske’s, Director of National Drug Control Policy (not a Drug Czar) assessment of how America has fared on the war on drugs seems to support O’Rourke’s argument. “In the grand scheme, it has not been successful. Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”

Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron noted the increase in spending has not decreased the murder rate, and the “Current policy is not having an effect of reducing drug use, but it’s costing the public a fortune.”

The war began in 1971 when Richard Nixon declared, “Public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse.” Nixon’s first drug-fighting budget was $100 million. Obama’s drug war budget for 2012 is, gulp, $15.5 billion. For those at home keeping score, that’s over 3o times Nixon’s disbursement adjusted for inflation.

Oh yeah, and for the fiscally impaired, taxpayers spent $1 trillion over four decades, lost thousand of lives, and Americans are still consuming a quixotic mixture of drugs like Popeye mows down spinach.

“I hope it has all had its intended affect of starting the national discussion of the wisdom of the war on drugs … and probably more importantly, helping to bring about a better solution than the status quo, which has led to the terror and tragedy in Juárez,” O’Rourke said.

However, the drug war debate will likely not reemerge until the next tragic murder of an American tourist in Mexico. But Mr. O’Rourke not only instigated a badly needed national dialogue, he also raised a banner for front-line communities in the drug war with Mexico. “We are disproportionately affected by any U.S. policy that deals with Mexico, whether it’s immigration or, in this case, drug policy. We should be the ones framing this and informing the policy makers at the national level – not Lou Dobbs or people in D.C. or other parts of the country.”

While no one is seriously considering turning El Paso into Amsterdam, there is a dramatic need for more effective interdiction and better coordination and communication with Mexican law enforcement.

The relative calm in Colombia has been supplanted by a hell storm on our border.

It would be criminal not to rethink our approach to combatting the drug trade and narco-terrorism.

(To read more on the history of the war on drugs click on Rock The Capital.)

This post was written by:
- who has written 390 posts for Rock The Capital
Eric J. Epstein is RocktheCapital‘s coordinator and a community advocate for good government for over 25 years. Mr. Epstein is also Chairman of the Three Mile Island Alert, Inc., a safe-energy organization founded in 1977; President of EFMR Monitoring Group, Inc., a non-profit economic development corporation established in 1977, and Chairman of the Stray Winds Area Neighbors (SWAN), a smart growth association organized in 2005. Mr. Epstein was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Humanities at PSU-Harrisburg (1992-1999) and co-authored the Dictionary of the Holocaust, which was released by Greenwood Press (1997) - Email Eric Epstein

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