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Mike Gray -- Last Act for the War on Drugs

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By Mike Gray
Sunday, April 12, 2009

In 1932, Alphonse Capone, an influential businessman then living in Chicago, used to drive through the city in a caravan of armor-plated limos built to his specifications by General Motors.

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Submachine-gun-toting associates led the motorcade and brought up the rear. It is a measure of how thoroughly the mob mentality had permeated everyday life that this was considered normal.

Capone and his boys were agents of misguided policy. Ninety years ago, the United States tried to cure the national thirst for alcohol, and it led to an explosion of violence unlike anything we'd ever seen. Today, it's hard to ignore the echoes of Prohibition in the drug-related mayhem along our southern border. Over the past 15 months, there have been 7,200 drug-war deaths in Mexico alone, as the government there battles an army of killers that would scare the pants off Al Capone.

Now U.S. officials are warning that the vandals may be headed in this direction. Too late: They're already here. And they're in a good position to take over organized crime in this country as well.

After decades of trying to stem the influx of illegal narcotics into the United States, it's clear that the drug war, like Prohibition, has led us into a gruesome blind alley. Drugs are cheaper than ever before and you can buy them anywhere. As Mexico's cash-starved government struggles to keep up the good fight, the drug barons rake in more than enough to buy political protection and military power while still maintaining profit margins beyond imagining. And what's driving this desperate struggle may be the ubiquitous weed: Southwestern lawmen say that marijuana accounts for two-thirds of the cartels' income.

At last, the spectacular violence in Mexico has captured everybody's attention, and in an eerie replay of the end of alcohol prohibition, we may at last be witnessing the final act in the war on drugs.

One hint of a shifting wind came in February, when a state legislator from San Francisco introduced a bill to tax, regulate and legalize adult use of cannabis. This sort of grandstanding is always met with derision, and this was no exception. But then something strange happened: California's chief tax collector said that the measure would bring in $1.3 billion a year and save another $1 billion on enforcement and incarceration. In a state facing an $18 billion deficit, suddenly nobody was laughing.

Four days later Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, who's no legalizer, said that he, too, thinks we should take another look at marijuana prohibition. "The most effective way to establish a virtual barrier against the criminal activities is to take the profit out of it," he told a U.S. Senate subcommittee.

The next day, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced a minor policy shift with enormous implications: The federal government would no longer go after groups that supply medical marijuana in the 13 states where it is legal. The Drug Enforcement Administration had been raiding dispensaries routinely, and dozens of patients and growers are behind bars today despite their legal status in California's eyes. Now that threat has vanished for those who comply with state law. For California, this amounts to de facto legalization.

At his recent cyberspace town hall meeting, President Obama fielded a question about whether legalizing marijuana would improve the economy. "No," he replied as the audience giggled. But that answer sheds no light on his actual thinking. Obama has already called the drug war an "utter failure." And since he himself is an admitted ex-toker, it's hard to believe that he'd cancel some kid's college education over a crime he got away with.

Of course, resistance to marijuana legalization remains rock solid in Washington among those who can't face the failure of prohibition. But that has more to do with politics than science. The Department of Health and Human Services says that there are 32 million drug abusers in the country, but that includes 25 million marijuana smokers. If you strike them from the list, how do you justify spending $60 billion a year in this economy trying to stop 2 percent of the population from being self-destructive? It would be dramatically cheaper to follow the Swiss example: Provide treatment for all who want it, and supply the rest with pure drugs under medical supervision.

When we erected an artificial barrier between alcohol producers and consumers in 1920, we created a bonanza more lucrative than the Gold Rush. The staggering profits from illegal booze gave mobsters the financial power to take over legitimate businesses and expand into casinos, loan sharking, labor racketeering and extortion. Thus we created the major crime syndicates -- and the U.S. murder rate jumped tenfold.


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