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Proposed Solution to America's Long Lost War on Drugs
By John M. Gorrindo
Indonesian Correspondent
Operation Mallorca, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, 2005 US Department of Justice press release

It was refreshing to hear a United State's Secretary of State actually admit America's fair share of culpability for the plague of death the drug cartels have perpetrated on the Mexican people.

"Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade. Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians," Secretary Clinton said upon her official State visit to Mexico on March 25th.

As a high ranking member of the U.S. government, Clinton's admission is laudable, but no prescription for winning the war itself is therein expressed. If history is any guide at all, no amount of police or national guardsmen will ever change America's appetite for illegal drugs. The demand will always be there, and the rules governing this multi-billion dollar underground economy is no different than the so-called legitimate market place: If there is a demand, there will always be a supply. The crux of the war with Mexico's drug cartels boils down to a question of whether Obama and his administration have the guts to act with a bold, new tack on the question of illegal drugs. The question is, "How innovative and courageous are you really, Mr. President? During your campaign you called for change in America- here's your perfect opportunity, sir."

Tragically, despite decades of opportunity, America's ruling class has not shown the political courage to steer a rational course as per policies concerning illegal drugs. If pragmatism had held its own against demagoguery, Mexico and America wouldn't have presently found themselves embroiled in such a devastating war against narcoterrorism.

Drugs have always been a powerful wedge issue in America's long running culture wars- so much so that the first thing that comes to mind when talking about illegal drug use is the word war itself. It was then President Nixon who in 1971 first officially declared a War on Drugs, calling drugs "public enemy number one." But Nixon's real political intent was to pit his vaunted "silent majority" against the "moral degenerates" that threatened America's very soul.

Nixon's War on Drugs was a calculated tactic in a broader divide-and-conquer strategy that he hoped would help him remain on top of the political heap. The strategy was as simple as it was time-honored: create a life-threatening enemy; demonize that enemy; and then call for aggressive "law and order" solutions to defeat that enemy. Such fear-mongering was sure to rally the masses behind a president leading the charge, Nixon believed. American politicians have a nasty habit of fed off the diversion a common enemy provides.

But there were plenty of antecedents to Nixon's call to war. America had already long been held hostage to a coterie of policy makers whose self-righteous indignation towards mind-altering substances were the determining factor in the government's approach to regulating drug and alcohol use. Federal drug policy was founded on ideological and religious grounds. Drug use was considered a moral failing, and called for punitive action. Few saw it as a public health or medical issue.

During and after World War I, a consortium of socially conservative organizations succeeded after years of effort in persuading federal and state governments to outlaw alcohol through amending the U.S. constitution. During that same time, the Harrison Act of 1914 was also passed. This federal law was the first to criminalize drugs in the United States. These vice laws were passed not in response to the argument that drug use caused crime. It was not law enforcement that lobbied for the Prohibition, for instance, but religious groups such as Protestant missionary societies in China, and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Their stance against alcohol and drug use was that it was "sinful," and that sinners should go to jail. It was the drug user's very soul that was at stake, and the government's obligation was to save that soul from its own devices.

Prohibition on alcohol proved to be an abject failure. A powerful underworld of organized crime led by figures such as Al Capone was spawned to slake the unquenchable American thirst for liquor. Alcohol had such strong roots in American culture that Prohibition was impossible to enforce. After a thirteen year reign, it took another amendment to the U.S. constitution to rescind Prohibition in 1933.

During that same time period, the use of drugs such as marijuana and opiates was not nearly as culturally widespread in the United States. With xenophobia in America abounding in the World War I era, such classes of drugs were considered culturally foreign; their effects damaging to a person's ambitious drive, and as such could be propagandized as foreign threats to the moral health of America. Ultimately, as compared to alcohol, it proved easier to legislate against their use.

The cultural revolution of the 1960's swept through America with a violent wind. Social experimentation and personal explorations into the worlds of sex and drugs were all part of a new preoccupation with individual freedom. Over the course of the next fifty years, drugs such as marijuana and cocaine have become rites of passage for not only millions of young Americans, but also American presidents as well. The last three presidents have all admitted to the use of either marijuana and/or cocaine. No longer foreign were these "exotic drugs." In fact, marijuana had become America's number one agricultural cash crop! Some estimates cite the number of Americans to have experimented with illegal drugs to be well over one hundred million.

In 1996, the National Review and its editor William F. Buckley published a daring symposium under the title The War on Drugs is Lost. (

Its authors were in the main conservative, and Buckley himself was considered America's intellectual Godfather of the conservative revolution which had helped produce the Reagan era.

To quote Buckley's lead-in sums up the frustration, citing the War on Drugs as a plague equal to drug use itself: "We are speaking of a plague that consumes an estimated $75 billion per year of public money, exacts an estimated $70 billion a year from consumers, is responsible for nearly 50 percent of the million Americans who are today in jail, occupies an estimated 50 percent of the trial time of our judiciary, and takes the time of 400,000 policemen — yet a plague for which no cure is at hand, nor in prospect."

The symposium's message was simple: it was time to decriminalize drugs in America. The most honest of conservatives now understood that America would have to become a police state sacrificing its dearly held values of freedom in order to win that war. It was a message whose time had come amongst even many conservative intellectuals, but to this very day, American politicians consider such a policy as tantamount to political suicide.

Where is there voice given to decriminalization as a weapon in the current war against the Mexican Drug Cartels? American establishments of government and the mainstream press have stubbornly refused to publically consider it. But if the violence spilling over the border into America begins to take an uncontrollable toll on American lives, one can predict that the "D" word- decriminalization- will start to be heard. It seems nothing short of desperation will overcome the American inertia and lack of political courage when it comes to at least testing-out decriminalization.

American politicians have routinely been deathly afraid of the "D" word, yet for years polls show the American public basically amenable to the following: The War on Drugs has failed, at least some illegal drugs should be decriminalized, and a public health approach should be tried as opposed to filling American prisons with casualties of that war.

And decriminalization of marijuana is exactly where the next phase of the War on Drugs should begin. Marijuana sales account for 50% of Mexican Drug Cartel income, and if the American government would establish new regulations for the legal production, distribution, tax, and conditional use of marijuana, it would threaten the Cartel with potential loss of half its income.

There already is provision for the medical use of marijuana in several American states. The door to decriminalization has already been cracked open as marijuana is widely acknowledged as having unique and proven medical applications nowhere else found in the pharmacopeia. Decriminalization becomes a matter of sorting out the various competing jurisdictions of state and federal law. No easy task, this, but doable.

Attacking the Cartel's bottom line will be as powerful as any weapon or tactic imaginable. The Cartel is no less susceptible to a siphoning-off of funds as was Al Capone. Cutting off money supplies will quickly undermine the Cartel's ability to buy weapons- many of them supplied by the American marketplace- and to continue financing private armies as populated by corrupted Mexican police and military personnel.

As President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano roll out their plans for engaging the Mexican War Cartels, we shall see just how bold their thinking really is. America's longest war is also its longest lost war. The War on Drugs was lost long ago and America continues to be intent on losing it.

If Obama confidentially agrees with the concept of decriminalization, would he be willing to spend the political capital necessary to fight for it? The question will not doubt soon be answered.

Many political pundits are quick to summarize the Mexican-American drug war as one where "drugs flow north; money and weapons flow south." The dynamic is used to describe the sick symbiosis that plagues relations between the two countries. Even with direct military intervention, America couldn't ever hope to forever destroy the cross-border drug trade. It would resurrect itself in the blink of an eye. Interventionist policies have failed with disastrous results in South American countries such as Columbia and Peru, for instance.

But America can tackle the problem domestically. America's anachronistic, counterproductive domestic prejudices and laws have been as responsible as any single factor in shaping the current horrors being played out in not only Mexico and America, but across the Americas itself.

Morality is a poor substitute for pragmatism in the War on Drugs.

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Mr. John M. Gorrindo, who serves as an Indonesian correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a native-born Californian. As holder of a MA degree in music composition from the University of California, he made Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia his home after serving as a volunteer English teacher there. He also a writes fictions and composes music. Some of his writings and music can be found at Fringing reefs and Vertical Walls:






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