Drug War is Not Just a Metaphor; So How Do We Stop the Shooting?

02/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Jan. 7, I wrote that El Paso Mayor John Cook's veto of a resolution by City Council was everything that is wrong with the War on Drugs.

I was wrong. It was most of it, but it wasn't everything.

Proof of that came Jan. 12, when U.S. Rep Silvestre Reyes and the five-member El Paso delegation to the Texas House sent letters and made phone calls to members of El Paso City Council warning that if the debate continued, El Paso would be punished legislatively. In the words of Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi," the statement was: "No money for you!"

It was a vague threat with no specifics attached, and it worked. The next day, Jan. 13, the City Council considered overriding the mayor's veto. Four City Council members changed their vote, and the override failed. Three specifically cited the letters as the reason for changing their vote, saying if not for the threat of losing state or federal money money they would have affirmed their original vote.

Quick history: The El Paso City Council had voted unanimously last week on a resolution drafted by the city's Committee on Border Relations that expressed support for our Sister City of Juarez and called upon the federal government to take several steps to aid Juarez and Mexico. Those steps included clamping down on gun-running and money-laundering; the controversy arose when city Rep. Beto O'Rourke amended a portion of the resolution calling for less focus on incarceration and more on rehabilitation to asking for an "honest open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics." (The resolution will go back before the City Council on Tuesday [Jan. 27] without that amendment.)

Within hours, we had our story up, as did other media, and Cook -- who did not speak during the discussion -- had issued the veto. (To his credit, Cook later apologized for failing to enter the discussion when it first counted.)

The local headlines were followed by national coverage. As might be expected, Lou Dobbs was frantic, hyperbolic, and ill-informed. In the words of Bugs Bunny, "what an ultramaroon." The CNN "drug war surrender" framework from his "fact-based" news colleagues, however, was unexpected. I thought they were supposed to understand stories before they reported them - at least, that's their rep. But a few years of getting their asses handed to them by FOX seems to have gotten the better of their journalism. Or maybe it's just that their coverage was everything that's wrong with the Drug War, as well.

Part of the publicity the event generated focused on the idea that the City Council had endorsed legalizing drugs. In fact, I thought so, as well - even though they clearly called for a debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics, the only other option besides what we're doing now initially appeared to me to be some form of legalizing or decriminalizing some or all drugs.

But it turns out O'Rourke was smarter than I was, and correct when he asserted that the issue was calling for a debate, not calling for legalization. That became clear after the presentation at City Council Tuesday, where what should be happening at the national level happened - people spoke for and against taking a different approach. Some offered stuff and nonsense, others gave reasoned arguments. The truth wasn't owned by either side, and while generally I think it makes sense to legalize or decriminalize some or all drugs, I heard some oppositional arguments that also made good sense. And there may be options that we haven't considered yet. If it was my decision, I'd have a really hard time figuring it out.

The unique opportunity to hear a variety of positions on a variety of issues, all in one session, made me realize a central fact of the Drug War -- I've never seen or heard the federal government place itself in the neutral position of being first a fact-finder and then a policy-maker. There are health issues, law enforcement issues, civil liberty issues, social issues, race and class issues, economic issues, politics and policy. Yet, from its inception, the Drug War has been about fear -- in El Paso almost 100 years ago, fear of Mexicans -- and a rushed response to a missed diagnosis.

There are good arguments on both sides, and some not-so-good arguments -- for example, when El Paso's mayor refers to the "failed experiment" with legalizing marijuana in Alaska even though that's not what happened (the Alaska Supreme Court in the 1970s ruled the state's privacy clause allowed adults to grow small amounts of marijuana for personal use). That kind of talk, in the sunshine of an honest, fully vetted conversation, will be exposed. So too will such assertions and those made in a local publication that the Dutch are backing away from their "tolerance" approach (the Dutch are looking at cracking down on some "coffee-shops" that are too close to schools and the borders of neighboring countries, but say that the overall approach -- treating drug abuse as a social and health problem, and drug USE as a personal choice -- will stand).

In the end, the debate was both greatly inspiring and gravely disappointing.

It was inspiring because with very little notice the City Council was able to air in public so many issues that need to be debated at the highest levels, and it was disappointing because the state and federal leadership failed to uphold what ought to be their first priority, the honest search for the best policy.

They bowed to fear.

Reyes gave no real substantive answer as to who threatened to withhold what funding and initially ducked interviews on the subject locally. Asked an on-the-spot question in a Capitol hallway by the Huffington Post, he said might entertain hearings at a later time on the issue. (However, through his spokesman, who almost always is available to the media, Reyes later said he meant hearings on the violence in Mexico, not the debate over the debate over legalization.)

He said in statements that he also opposed the resolution because of the timing - President-elect Barack Obama was meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon Jan. 12.

Umm ... what better and more relevant time would there be to have this debate, when U.S.-Mexico relations are on the table in a time of unprecedented drug violence, while U.S. officials are working on stepping up the Drug War? And don't forget, many Mexican officials, even while blood is spilled in their own country, have urged legalization as a way to lessen the underworld profits and violence.

From here, it looks like nothing more than an effort to stifle the debate before the debate has a chance to actually influence policy. Sure, that makes sense. Let's continue and enhance the current policy, then we can talk about it after it's too late for the talk to be relevant.

It's not surprising that Reyes would respond as he did, for several reasons. The focus of his professional career has been and continues to be as an advocate of the Drug War. Reyes is a fairly conservative guy, a career law officer and military veteran. And he is closely tied to the defense industry. It makes sense he would be, both from a career standpoint, from his current position as chairman of House Intelligence, and as the congressman for Fort Bliss, one of the few military bases on the nation to experience rapid growth (in fact, it's being called a "city within a city"). Defense contractors, who like the prison industry more and more look toward the border as a market, are among his largest contributors. And he is a sponsor for the University of Texas at El Paso Border Security Conference that takes place annually, drawing big defense contractors and top-level federal security officials, even as the university cashes in on the growing market for border security through development of federally designated centers of excellence in border security and intelligence.

In the end, an email I sent to a friend of mine describes what everyone with their ear to the ground in El Paso and Juarez knows:

We are tied to Mexico. The whole issue really is not just about the violence there, it's ultimately our relationship with Mexico, which we never fully have resolved. The drug policy, right now, is a major issue in that relationship, because of the violence. So what can we do to help? Rethinking our drug policy is an important part of a very complex picture. But it's the economy, stupid. There is a huge economy, legal and otherwise, based on a continuation of this war.

You and I know what will happen -- sooner or later, someone will win out, and the winner will get back to business. Violence will die down, although the occasional blanket-wrapped or tortured body will be found in the desert, and the occasional girl will disappear, but nobody will hurt enough, care enough or be powerful enough to make much of an issue. The status quo will prevail. The drug economy, legal and illegal, will continue as before.

Then one day, seemingly all of a sudden, the violence will spike -- in Juarez, or Laredo, or Tijuana -- and we'll all act like we care. And maybe someone will have the balls to look into the core of the issue and say, we need to change how we're dealing with this.

I think you and I agree on most, if not all of this analysis. In fact, I'd think a "silent majority" of El Pasoans would agree.

So why then is it not relevant policy to discuss?

I know why. There is no proven electoral upside -- without that, what's in it for a politician? -- nobody gets any contracts out of it, there is no revenue in it for government agencies, and it negatively impacts the Drug War economy, legal and illegal, which is so powerful here.

And you want to talk about leadership?

The El Paso City Council tried to show some, and once again, the status quo prevailed.

************ coverage

News stories

-- Drug War resolution, minus 12 words, is back; Reyes willing to conduct hearing, by David Crowder:
"If it's still an issue [after the stimulus passes], I'm not opposed to perhaps even entertaining a hearing. I can look at that if they want to pursue it." -- Congressman Silvestre Reyes in the Huffington Post. Posted on Jan. 15, 2009

-- Warnings work, votes change, veto override fails, by David Crowder: "I think it's unfortunate how this came about, but that's life and that's politics. ... I will also say that the threat from Congressman Reyes, then articulated again by our House delegation at the state level is unfortunate, but it's having its desired affect, which is to chill discussion." -- city Rep. Beto O'Rourke. Posted on Jan. 13, 2009

-- 'Potheads' have sent their message; now it's time for the 'silent majority,' Mayor Cook urges in e-mail, by David Crowder: "I need folks to be contacting their reps." Cook's email reads. "I can tell you that all the potheads have sent their e-mails and they are encouraging the reps to stand by their decision. Why does the silent majority remain silent?" Posted on Jan. 12, 2009

-- O'Rourke in national headlights over 12 words in Drug War resolution, by David Crowder: Since the end of the City Council meeting on Tuesday, O'Rourke has been interviewed by CNN News and National Public Radio and blasted by commentator Lou Dobbs, who went off about the crazies on the border. Posted on Jan. 9, 2009

-- Cook's veto not supported by committee that created the drug war, Juarez solidarity resolution, by David Crowder: "My intention is to ask that this be on the Tuesday agenda, as adopted, for reconsideration, and we'll just see how the votes fall." -- city Rep. Beto O'Rourke on putting the vetoed resolution before City Council next week. Posted on Jan. 7, 2009

-- Mayor vetos unanimous resolution urging Washington to consider drug legalization, by David Crowder: "Legalizing the types of drugs that are being smuggled across the border is not an effective way to combat the violence in Mexico, and I would not support efforts in Congress that would seek to do so." -- U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes' comment on the council's resolution. Posted on Jan. 6, 2009


-- Drug War resolution requires resolve, by Sito Negron: In the heat of battle, the mayor dismissively calls people who think this makes sense "potheads," and appeals to a "silent majority" to come to council and support his veto. I'm thinking the silent majority is on the other side, and it's going to stay silent unless a few people have the courage, as did the City Council, to say that publicly. - Posted on Jan. 12, 2009

-- Identity and Drug War politics, by Richard Wright: People's identities are defined, to a point, on how they feel about drugs and their continued illegality. Unfortunately, this has produced a situation where no solution is consensually acceptable. Posted on Jan. 12, 2009

-- Will City Council start to finish the Drug War it helped launch 100 years ago?, by Sito Negron: In a neat bit of symmetry, it turns out that El Paso was one of the first, if not the first, cities to make marijuana illegal. Could it be that 100 years later, a less fearful, more understanding El Paso City Council might fix the mistakes of its ancestors? Posted on Jan. 9, 2009

-- I'm on your side, even though your ideas about the Drug War are stupid, by David Karlsruher: I'm just asking for some clarity here. People want to stop the drug wars inMexico, but all I hear for a solution is to get more Americans hooked the cartel's top selling products. Pardon me if I'm not buying it. Posted on Jan. 8, 2009

-- Former mayor to City Council: Stay the course on drug resolution, by Bill Tilney: As a former mayor, I understand the position taken by Mayor John Cook, when he decided to veto the resolution at the last moment. With that, the council did the right thing; now that you have gained the attention of the national media, don't drop the ball. Posted on Jan. 8, 2009

-- Let's talk about the Drug War, by Sito Negron: Mayor John Cook's veto was everything that's wrong with the public policy debate on legalizing or decriminalizing or changing the focus of the nearly 40-year War on Drugs. Posted on Jan. 7, 2009