Pubdate: Mon, 28 Sep 2009
Source: San Antonio Express-News (TX)
Copyright: 2009 San Antonio Express-News
Author: John MacCormack, Express-News


EL PASO -- The year was 1969, and as suburban American teenagers 
explored the exotic possibilities of the $10 lid -- about an ounce of 
marijuana, seeds, stems and all -- Vietnam vets were coming home as 
addicts and inner cities were being hit by heroin epidemics.

In June that year, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse "a 
serious national threat," and the mass media images of stoned 
Woodstock hippies that followed in August reinforced his warnings.

The broad enforcement program he launched soon became known as "the 
war on drugs," and grew to become a multibillion-dollar effort 
focused on interdiction, destruction of foreign crops and harsh 
penalties for even minor offenses.

On its 40th anniversary, the drug war continues at a cost in blood, 
ruined lives and public dollars that Nixon could never have imagined.

Over the decades, calls to reassess the policy, or even end it, have 
had little effect.

Last week, as the year's toll of drug killings in nearby Ciudad 
Juarez moved steadily toward 1,800 -- among the latest a headless, 
tortured body found in a canal -- the debate finally came to the 
front line of the conflict: the border.

"After 40 years and all the money spent, with U.S. consumption as 
high as ever, people languishing in prison for possession of soft 
drugs like marijuana and the violence in Mexico worse than ever, it 
seems to me that something has to change," said Kathleen Staudt, a 
professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, which hosted the 
"U.S. War on Drugs" conference.

More than two dozen drug experts, academics, border journalists and 
law enforcement officials gathered to compare notes for three days 
about drug policy, coming from Mexico, the United States and even Colombia.

Two seemingly unlikely advocates of radical change at the conference 
were Terry Nelson, a retired federal agent, and James Gray, a 
California state judge, both of whom once sent drug offenders to prison.

"The global war on drugs is probably the greatest public policy 
failure of all time," said Nelson, who stalked traffickers in the 
Caribbean and Latin America during three decades with the U.S. Border 
Patrol, Customs and Department of Homeland Security.

"The drug war has brought us the militarization of our police force," 
Nelson said. "And it's killing our families when you put a mother or 
father in jail for smoking small amounts of marijuana."

Nelson said the answer is legalization, education and regulation, the 
treatment given two other dangerous but popular legal drugs, alcohol 
and tobacco.

Gray, a former federal prosecutor and now a silver-haired Republican 
judge in Orange County, has been arguing for reform since 1992, when 
he realized how many low-level drug users were being prosecuted.

"We lead the world in incarceration of our own citizens, both in 
sheer numbers and on a per capita basis," he said, largely because of 
drug inmates.

Citing a public policy study that is best known for being ignored, he 
said, "Sixteen years ago the Rand Corporation found that we get seven 
times more value for drug treatment than we do for law enforcement.

"We cannot repeal the law of supply and demand. Maybe we should stop 
being moralists and start being managers," he said, despite the 
entrenched economic interests involved.

Defending the Drug War

Over three days of discussion, one voice was heard loudly defending 
the present policy.

"Ultimately what we are talking about is the obligation of the state 
to protect its citizens," said Anthony Placido, who leads the Drug 
Enforcement Administration's intelligence program.

"It's about mind-altering substances that destroy human life and 
create the violence you see only a few blocks from here," he said.

His presentation depicted meth-ravaged American housewives, the 
butchered bodies of Mexican drug soldiers and brain scans that 
purported to show "dead spots" caused by heavy marijuana use.

"We went to war after 9-11 when 3,100 people were killed. 
Thirty-eight thousand die every year in this country from drugs," he 
said, adding that decriminalization would bring further harm.

With Ciudad Juarez in sharp relief just across the border from the 
UTEP campus, Mexicans joined their American counterparts in a search 
for common policy ground between the world's largest consumer of 
illegal drugs and the supplier of much of them.

The Mexican academics showed no enthusiasm for legalization of drugs 
in the U.S. The abyss remains wide, according to one Mexican border 
journalist who paraphrased former Mexican President Porfirio Diaz to 
make his point.

"Poor USA. So close to Mexico, so far from Mexican reality," was the 
cryptic assessment of Ramon Cantu, editor of El Manana of Nuevo 
Laredo, where, three years ago, a reporter was badly wounded in a 
narco attack on the newspaper office.

The conference headliner was Sergio Fajardo Valderrama, a candidate 
for the Colombian presidency who helped bring peace to Medellin, once 
the most dangerous city on the planet because of wholesale drug killings.

On Monday night, Fajardo drew more than 2,000 anxious listeners to a 
Greek-themed reception hall in Ciudad Juarez with a speech about the 
revitalization of Medellin, a turnaround centered on police reform 
and dramatic public works projects, such as libraries and schools, in 
poor neighborhoods.

Noticeably absent from the gathering were two members of the Obama 
administration -- Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske and Border Czar Alan 
Bersin, who, according to Staudt, were invited but at the last minute 
declined to attend or send a representative.

The conversation was more choir practice than robust debate, as a 
consensus emerged that the enforcement-driven policy isn't working.

But, as one speaker reminded everyone, just talking about loosening 
drug policy remains the dangerous "third-rail" of American politics.

"You touch it, and you're dead," she said.

Among the options examined were decriminalizing drug possession, with 
options ranging from marijuana to hard drugs, and treating drug abuse 
as a medical and social problem, rather than a crime.

A recent move in Mexico to decriminalize small amounts of drugs and a 
ruling by the Argentine Supreme Court that it is illegal for police 
to prosecute personal drug use buoyed arguments for legalization.

With the cartel drug war in Ciudad Juarez still raging, the man most 
responsible for bringing the drug debate to the border vowed not to rest.

"We, as a community, are now armed with so much information, we can 
exert more pressure on our elected leaders," said El Paso Councilman 
Beto O'Rourke, who in January introduced a controversial resolution 
calling for an open discussion of all options on drug policy.

"In this community, we may not all agree on the solution, but we all 
agree on the problem," he said. "And it's hard to imagine that you 
could create a policy that would be more harmful."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake