Source: American Spectator Magazine (US)
Copyright: 1999 The American Spectator
Contact:  P.O. Box 549 Arlington, VA 22216-0549
Pubdate: April 1999
Author: Mark Steyn
Related: This article mentions Richard Cowan and Peter McWilliams. Cowan's
website at also carries the article at


America blames everyone but itself for its habits.

The State of New Hampshire doesn't require much from its school districts-a
mutually satisfactory arrangement about to be abruptly terminated due to an
asinine Supreme Court decision declaring our entire education system

But I digress. One of the few things the state does require of my small
grade school and every other one is that they post signs on the road warning
motorists they are now entering a "Drug-Free School Zone."

It irks me. At board meetings, I'm tempted to stand up and demand we replace
it with "You Are Now Entering a Latin-Free School Zone"-which at least has
the merit of being indisputable. But it seems the best we can hope for from
our public education system these days is that our children aren't heroin
dealers by the time they've been through it. And instead of being quietly
ashamed of this stunted redefinition of education, we flaunt it as a badge
of pride, out on the highway, even at a rural north country elementary
school. For even kindergartners and first-graders must understand that they,
too, are foot-soldiers in the "war on drugs." Best of all, like almost all
other awards in the American school system, you get it automatically: every
educational establishment in the state triumphantly displays the same sign,
regardless of whether it's a Drug-Free School Zone or a School-Free Drug

And that's more or less how the "war on drugs" goes for grown-ups, too.
South of the Mexican border, they're nailing up their 1999 "Proud to Be
Recognized As a Full Partner in the War on Drugs" signs, recently shipped
out by the U.S. government. It doesn't actually matter whether the Mexican
authorities are cracking down on their drug barons or whether their
so-called "drug czar" and half the cops are on the take; Washington still
"recertifies" them, because not to do so could send "the wrong signal."

I have some sympathy for these harassed Latins. What's known here as
"America's drug problem" might more properly be described as the rest of the
world's America problem. Americans like drugs. Americans consume drugs in
large quantities. And yet, because as a nation Americans are still
sufficiently hypocritical (even in these Clintonian times) to be unwilling
formally to acknowledge their appetites, the burden of servicing this huge
market has shifted inexorably to the dusty ramshackle statelets in America's
backyard. It may well be true that most Mexican police and most Colombian
politicians are corrupt, but why wouldn't they be?

Personally, I know or care very little about Latin America, but I'm fond of
the British West Indies, and the contorted drug delivery systems required by
Washington are destroying one sleepy, shabby island idyll after another.
That's why I'm rooting for the Europeans in this transatlantic banana war.
You probably haven't noticed that we're in the middle of a banana war,
except maybe for the extraordinary number of stories in business
publications headlined "Yes, We Have No Bananas." As it happens, yes,
everyone has plenty of bananas, but that's still no reason for the United
States and the European Union not to go to war over them.

Neither the U.S. nor the E.U. actually grows bananas, but this is the
twenty-first-century version of those nineteenth-century imperial disputes,
where the great powers line up behind one obscure tribe or another and stage
a proxy war. In this instance, the U.S. has lined up behind Latin American
bananas, while the British and French are on the side of
Afro-Caribbean-Pacific bananas. Unless the E.U. ceases its banana
protectionism, Washington will ban imports of...cashmere. Don't ask me why.
Maybe they ran some numbers and discovered that Scottish cashmere workers
are especially partial to bananas. In the West Indies, bananas replaced
sugar cane plantations when the British figured out sugar could be more
profitably mined from beets. But if the cowering, fetal-positioned Caribbean
banana loses to its thrusting Latin neighbor, what's left to switch to? "If
we lose the banana industry," says Eugenia Charles, former prime minister of
Dominica, "we lose the country."

Dame Eugenia doesn't spell it out, but what she means is that the more
economically depressed those small West Indian islands get, the more they
degenerate into mere staging posts for drug-smuggling into the U.S. So the
$860 million given by Carl Lindner, Chiquita's top banana, to the Democratic
and Republican Parties will look like chicken feed next to the budget
increase the Drug Enforcement Administration will need to combat a more
vigorous cocaine trade. But who cares? Washington objects to countries like
Dominica living off the E.U.'s artificially distorted banana market; it
would rather they lived off America's artificially distorted drug market.

Back home, meanwhile, the "war" has been taking an interesting turn. In
1996, California and Arizona passed propositions decriminalizing marijuana
or mandating it "for medicinal purposes." Let us stipulate that, if you
believe the latter, you've been inhaling too long: No doubt marijuana has no
more medicinal properties than, say, butterscotch pudding. Let us stipulate,
also, that most proponents of "medicinal marijuana" are those whose
principal enthusiasm for the drug is strictly non-medicinal. But, even so,
there's something very curious about the vigor with which this
administration-led by a president who smirkingly told MTV viewers that,
given another chance, he'd inhale-has been determined to reverse the voters'
decision and harass any doctors who support it.  Nothing, it seems, can
deflect the federal government from its "war." It's an interesting case
study in addiction: Like some crack-frazzled zombie, the government staggers
on blindly, unable to be weaned from its self-destructive and sociopathic

In America there are two problems: drugs, and the "war on drugs"; and the
"war" is the bigger one. Yes, drugs are a danger to society-though, on
balance, they're probably not as big a threat as America's Number One
addiction, food. The fact that over 50 percent of the population is now
classified as overweight has far more serious consequences for society than
drugs do. Yet no one suggests driving hamburgers underground, forcing
junk-food junkies into the arms of back-alley "Mac" dealers. ("Yeah, he,
like, told me it was 100 percent pure ground Argentine, but, like, it turned
out to be a lethal cocktail of dog turd and English beef. That's real bad
s-t, man-'specially the English stuff.")

Or take gay sex. Given HIV rates of 50-60 percent among homosexuals in New
York and San Francisco, you could easily make the case that gay sex is
harmful and should be banned. Nobody does, though. Au contraire, vast
resources are devoted to finding ways of making it less harmful, from
protease inhibitors to the race to invent the concrete condom. The
government reckons that, since most guys who wanna do it are gonna do it
anyway, better to figure out ways to make it safer.

Not so with drugs, where the "war" floats free of budgetary constraints and
there's enough government largesse to swill around the DEA, ATF, FBI, and at
least 50 other agencies. When Vice President Gore suggested amalgamating
these warring, inefficient, acronymic agencies into one slimmed-down
ultra-efficient DEATFBI, the president ruled against it on the grounds that
it would send (all together now) the "wrong signal": having lots of
agencies, no matter how useless, sends the right signal. So, across the
country, undercover DEA agents are staking out undercover FBI agents who are
selling drugs to undercover DEA agents who are staking out undercover ATF

Still, the signals the present system's sending are, to say the least,
mixed. In 1996, it was revealed that, as part of their infiltration of one
Latin American drug cartel, federal agents had successfully smuggled
millions of dollars' worth of cocaine onto the streets of America's cities.
At that level, it's hard to see the difference between successful
infiltration and full-scale participation. But given their adeptness at
managing the drug trade, these guys might at least manage it on behalf of
the U.S. Treasury rather than some pock-marked bozos from Colombia.

N. Scott Stevens, my near-neighbor in New Hampshire and the head of the
White Mountain Militia, thinks there's a lot of this going on. He doesn't do
drugs, but he doesn't think the federal government has the right to
legislate what you grow in your yard and, anyway, to criminalize it only
corrupts the feds. "The amount of drugs in this country, there's no way
they're all coming in on Piper Cubs. Those guys have got foreign bank
accounts, they're running three or four cars, they're wearing silk suits."
Funnily enough, federal agencies never seem to notice those sorts of things.

In 1995, over the river in tiny Cavendish, Vermont, a team of seven
fully-armed DEA agents in bullet-proof vests swooped down out of nowhere at
3 a.m. on the home of a small-town lawyer, Will Hunter, and then announced
to the world that "it is clear" he'd been laundering drug money: no
"allegedlys," no "the investigation is ongoing," just "it is clear." They
took three years to indict him for anything, and eventually settled for a
single count of mail fraud.

Hunter was making about $20,000 a year and routinely took payment in cheese
and maple syrup. Possibly, this was just a brilliant facade, albeit one he
kept up 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But I went round to his cramped
little Cape, with one bath, with the family's pet turtle in it, and all I
can say is, if he's laundering anything other than maple syrup, he's doing
it far more discreetly than, say, Aldrich Ames, the CIA traitor whose
brand-new Merc and half-million dollar home paid for in cash apparently
never aroused the suspicion of his colleagues.

But, with undercover federal agents now commanding such a huge slice of the
drug business, the cannier dealers have begun to figure out that, instead of
selling drugs in such a crowded and competitive market, it's easier and more
profitable to sell drug suspects to the DEA. A Bolivian on the lam from his
own cops, and wanted in Argentina for every scam going, washed up in
Washington and, after a fruitless attempt to sell his wife's heart, lungs,
and kidneys as she lay in a coma, finally hit the federal gravy train. He
called a DEA office in Southern California and claimed that, if they could
get the charges in Bolivia and Argentina dropped and fix U.S. residency for
him, he could deliver them "Chama," the East Coast distributor for a huge
South American cartel. Not only did they do that, they paid him $30,000 plus
expenses and several flights to California into the bargain. The phone call
to a West Coast office was a stroke of genius: He knew that the Californians
would be terrified of losing the case to East Coast agents and so would keep
it a secret. The only problem was there was no "Chama," so instead he gave
them the name of a guy he knew, a parking lot attendant who worked 60 hours
a week for minimum wage.  The guy punches a time clock, so his records can
be verified, but so what? It never occurred to the DEA to wonder why the
East Coast King of Cocaine is parking cars 60 hours a week and living in a
one-room apartment.  Instead, they call him up at home and try to entrap
him.  This is their end of the conversation:

Yeah, what I'm trying to do is-since it's a matter which is quite
serious-big-and from the other things that I've seen like this, when we
can't be playing with, with unclear words and...that's why what I, what you
did, and I asked you if you'd spoken with him, because I know that he has
the financial capacity and after all he's, he's a partner of, of, of, and,
and in the end anything will yield a profit if we're hanging on to a big
stick that's on a big branch and, and we won't have any problems. Right?

The minimum-wage car-parker, being Bolivian and not speaking much English
but familiar with America's many telephone salesmen, replies: "Of course."

On the strength of this, the DEA launched an eight-month investigation
costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.  With most cases, the informant
has to wheedle out a small sample of cocaine from the trafficker to prove to
the feds that he's really in the business. No sample was forthcoming from
the Bolivian car-parker, mainly because he wasn't a drug dealer, but, even
if he'd wanted to be, he didn't know anyone who'd sell him any drugs and he
didn't have any money to pay for them. But the beauty of this scam was that,
according to DEA experts, true Class One dealers never give samples.
Therefore, the fact that no cocaine was forthcoming, that there was no
cocaine in sight, and that there was no evidence that the poor chump had
ever been in the same room as any cocaine was only further proof that the
guy must be a real Mister Big.

Which goes to show that no matter how crack addles the brain, it's nothing
to what investigating crack does to it.  We've learned to live with the
remorseless corruption of the "war," but, even so, out in California, the
government's pursuit of Peter McWilliams breaks new ground. McWilliams hit
the jackpot: he's got AIDS and cancer. But because, like a majority of his
fellow Californians, he believes in the right to "medicinal marijuana," he's
sitting in jail, facing a ten-year sentence, while prominent supporters of
his are staked out by various Federal agencies on apparently limitless
budgets.  (Marijuananews note: The good news is that Peter has not been
tried yet and is out on $250,000 bail. The bad news is that if he is
convicted it would be a minimum of ten years.) See "The federal prosecutor
personally called my mother to tell her that if I was found with even a
trace of medical marijuana, her house would be taken away." -- Peter

No surprise there. Since 1980, the budget for the "war" has increased by
over 1000 percent. Even if he'd been laundering drug money, the raid on that
country lawyer in Vermont cost far more than he could ever possibly have

And all of this is completely unnecessary. If drugs were made legally
available in government drugstores, the price would decline, enabling the
government to make a tidy profit and addicts to cut down on their property
theft.  You'd get rid of drug crime, drug murder, drug informers, drug
cartels-and all those drug agencies. And that's why it'll never happen.
Almost every drug agent could be reassigned to the new departments of the
FDA necessary to regulate federal drugstores, supervise the mandatory
labeling of every spliff, etc. But I can appreciate that that probably
doesn't have the glamour of swooping down in your chopper at dawn and
leaping out, guns a-blazing. When I asked Agent Bradley, DEA agent-in-charge
for Vermont, why he didn't just drop by at Will Hunter's place at nine in
the morning, he sighed, "Mark, that's not the way we do things."

Pity. Because all the evidence shows that no one can regulate you into the
ground like the U.S. government: Look at those smokers huddled on sidewalks;
look at those tobacco companies, constantly fending off one government
shakedown after another, no matter how furiously they spread their dough
around Washington; look at the poor gun manufacturers, contemplating the
same future. And then look at the Medellin and Cali boys snorting all the
way to the bank. The "drug war" is a civil war: The problem is American
appetites-and there are different ways to manage those. Speaking up for
Peter McWilliams, legalization advocate Richard Cowan put it this way:

"Everyone wants to talk about what marijuana does, but no one ever wants to
look at what marijuana prohibition does. Marijuana never kicks down your
door in the middle of the night. Marijuana never locks up sick and dying
people, does not suppress medical research, does not peek in bedroom
windows. Even if one takes every reefer madness allegation of the
prohibitionists at face value, marijuana prohibition has done far more harm
to far more people than marijuana ever could."

If only to deter the feds, I should say I loathe drugs and have no interest
in partaking of them. But I don't believe America has the right to
destabilize its neighbors, harass its own citizens, and corrupt its justice
system to maintain a fiction. Cowan is right.

Mark Steyn is theater critic of the New Criterion and movie critic of the
Spectator of London.

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