I'm sitting on a couch with a Seattle drug dealer while he freebases heroin. Let's call him Jaybird. His apartment is mildly dingy but homey, in a basement romper room kind of way. Lighters, empty plastic bags, marijuana crumbs, pieces of metal jewelry (rings, earrings), and guitar picks are scattered across every available surface. Jaybird used to work in customer service, but has been a full-time drug dealer for several years—mostly cocaine and a little heroin for friends, though he can get you whatever you like. (I ask if that includes opium, and he says: "Oh, man. I wish I'd known. A friend of mine came through town with some opium just last week.") The business hasn't made him rich; it hasn't even made him not-poor.
He's worried that this article (the fourth and final piece in a Stranger series on the cocaine trade and a dangerous cutting agent called levamisole that has newly appeared in the worldwide cocaine supply) will make him even poorer. "Can you stop writing about cocaine for a while?" he has asked on multiple occasions. His regular customers began fretting about whether the cocaine he was selling them contained levamisole after the first piece was published, and some of his occasional customers stopped calling.
"You've got to stop writing these articles," he pleaded one time when we happened to run into each other on the street. "I'm not into murder, man, but you're messing up business and some people are upset—I don't want to see you get hurt."
Jaybird had forgotten I was coming over to his apartment in Mountlake Terrace and is just walking out the door when I arrive, saying he has something "important" to do. He leaves me sitting on his couch for 20 minutes while a dark-colored sedan picks him up, takes him somewhere, and brings him back. He bursts through the door, plops down on the couch, and pulls a small black baggie of heroin from a hiding place on his body (I won't say where, but I'll say I was surprised).
He smoothes out a piece of aluminum foil. He's holding a small glass stem about the size of a pen in his mouth. He sprinkles a little powder from the baggie onto the foil, heats it from below with a lighter, and sucks up the rising tendrils of smoke through the stem. The heroin bubbles and caramelizes. It smells like it's been cut with sugar.
We've talked about legalizing marijuana (he's pro), and I ask him, as he finishes his hit, whether he thinks all drugs should be legalized.
His eyebrows shoot up and he shakes his head. He's holding his breath.
"Because people," he says, exhaling a huge plume of heroin smoke, "are fucking irresponsible."
A few nights later, I'm standing on a deck with a successful downtown businessman who sniffs cocaine several nights a week. (Some identifying details about the drug dealer and the businessman have been changed.) He used to be a daily user, but he's pulled back a bit. Only a few friends know about his habit, and some of his closest, longest-term friends have no idea. He's been following my series in The Stranger, but he says the potential dangers of levamisole (it can trigger an immune-system crash) haven't markedly slowed down his personal use. He doesn't know anybody who's gotten sick from tainted cocaine.
Does he, a serious but functional cocaine user, think his drug of choice should be legalized and regulated—at least so he wouldn't have to worry about whether his supply might make him sick?
"God no," he says, and takes a drag off his cigarette. "Cocaine fucks people up—plus, I'm a parent. When my kids become teenagers, I don't want them doing coke. It's convenient to have the law on your side when you're a parent."
I ask if he seriously thinks drug prohibition is going to keep his kids from using cocaine. After all, it hasn't stopped him.
"I don't know," he says and sighs. "I don't know. If I weren't a parent, it might be different—but you talk about legalizing drugs, and emotionally I get all eeeeeeeeee!"
A few days later, I'm talking to a retired Coast Guard captain who spent much of the 1980s working in the Gulf of Mexico busting drug smugglers. The Coast Guard, which had previously focused heavily on search-and- rescue and fisheries patrols, stumbled into the drug interdiction business by accident. "We'd go out to rescue someone," the captain says, "and there would be all this pot on board." On March 8, 1973, the Coast Guard cutter Dauntless, ported in Miami, found over a ton of marijuana on an American sailboat called The Big L. That was the beginning of the big time.
"People were generally ho-hum about search and rescue," he says. "Not that search and rescue was a ho-hum thing—it could be very dramatic—but if you brought in a big boatload of pot, it was a big news story." More importantly, it attracted serious money from the federal government, which was cranking up the drug war. "Commanders of Coast Guard vessels said to themselves, 'With drug busts, we're getting more mission recognition and more resources—and this is kind of fun!'"
He was a dedicated soldier in the drug war. "We'd get worked up about 'damn pot-smoking hippies trying to poison our schools' and all that," he says. "It was during the first Bush administration, and we just got pounded with that message." But then he found himself having to let go of crew members he liked and wanted to keep working with because they'd tested positive for marijuana. "I'd have good crew members, good sailors—good citizens who caused far fewer problems than people who abused alcohol—who, through drug testing, got caught in the net. And you begin to think, 'Well, this doesn't fit the stereotype we're hearing.' But then we'd come home from sea and watch Miami Vice and it would glamorize what we were doing, so it all fed into itself."
As his career went on, the captain—who happens to be my father, Ned Kiley, who had a 30-year Coast Guard career and retired as an O-6, the equivalent of a colonel in the army—started having quiet doubts about the ballooning bureaucracy around the drug-war industry, and the contractors and lobbyists encouraging the government to waste huge amounts of money on boats and airplanes and radar surveillance systems that weren't very useful. "Customs saw all this money and all these toys the Coast Guard was getting and wanted some, too—but they couldn't even take care of their boats. They were always broken. It was just bureaucracy run amok."
Then there were the people he was arresting at sea. "We'd get some actual bad guys," he says, most of them Americans. "Real low-life Gulf Coast types who were probably causing problems in other areas. But mostly you'd just get poor fishermen, poor Colombians, poor Hondurans. And you'd get some middle-class types who were just trying to pull some shit—we caught some poor couple's sailboat with 200 pounds of marijuana, which was a fairly small amount compared to what we were seeing."
On the morning of our conversation, he had been discussing with my mother a story in the New York Times about a major jailbreak by over 140 prisoners in Mexico (most of them accused of narco crimes—the prison director disappeared after the escape): "Your mother said, 'Oh, they should just legalize marijuana—all the cost and all the problems it causes are just way out of line.' And I agree with her! If two old farts like us—two conservative old farts—think we should legalize, then let's just get on with it!" (For the record, my parents are pro-legalization but not pro-drug. They've never taken an illicit drug in their lives and became supremely angry when I was in high school and they figured out that I was smoking pot with my friends.)
"Should the United States end prohibition on all drugs?" I ask.
"That's a little less clear," he says. "How would you do it? What would it look like? Maybe it would work—but I definitely think we should focus on treatment for drug addicts instead of punitive incarceration."
Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper had an even more dramatic change of heart about drug policy. Stamper remembers himself in his early career, a San Diego beat cop in the 1960s, as "a gleeful drug warrior making drug arrests, many of them for small possession of marijuana. I thought I was doing God's work." He had what he calls his "personal epiphany" in 1967, when he busted into a house in an affluent suburb to arrest a 19-year-old.
"I gained entrance in a manner that would be rejected today: 'knock and notice.' I tapped lightly on the door and whispered 'San Diego police,' then kicked his door in—sent it flying—and in the foot race to the bathroom, I beat him just before he made the second flush." Stamper scooped up some stems and seeds from the toilet and arrested the boy, who, on the ride to the jail, casually asked if they could stop at a store for some chips. The police radio was crackling in the background with far more serious crimes: robbery, car prowl, domestic violence. This was Stamper's road-to-Damascus moment. "I sorted through my mental inventory of what I was doing and thought: 'My God. This is just some 19-year-old kid who was in his parents' home—I've done damage to the house and damage to the Fourth Amendment, and this arrest will be a disservice to him for the rest of his life.' Meanwhile, I could've spent my time dealing with some kind of serious predatory crime."
Stamper quietly chewed over these thoughts until the early 1990s, when he began to speak out to business and chamber of commerce types. He began arguing that we should legalize all drugs. "The more sinister they are, the greater the justification for regulation instead of prohibition," he says. "A regulatory model would give the government, imperfect as it is, the first opportunity since the beginning of the last century to exercise some control over the drug trade. In recent years, we have reduced tobacco consumption by roughly half without a shot being fired. But in trying to reduce the black market for cocaine and heroin, we get guns, torture, beheadings, people being incinerated..."
In short, these two former drug warriors, who spent their careers trying to enforce prohibition, think we should legalize part of or all of the drug trade. But the heroin-smoking dealer and the coke-snorting professional lean toward prohibition.
What the fuck?
Tobacco use was responsible for 435,000 deaths in the United States in 2000, according to a 2004 issue of the Journal of the National Medical Association. The same year, all illegal drug use was responsible—directly and indirectly—for 17,000 deaths. When I started working on this series, I thought, like most moderate liberals: Yes, legalize pot, that's obvious. But heroin and cocaine and meth and the rest—aren't those drugs kind of dangerous?
The more hours I spent in the library, in research laboratories, in alleyways, and on couches interviewing addicts, dealers, policymakers, law enforcement officials, lawyers, doctors, and academics, the more I came to agree with Stamper—as well as former Mexican president Vicente Fox, former UK drug czar Bob Ainsworth, Spain's former (and, to date, longest-serving) prime minister Felipe Gonzalez, and members of Mexico's Social Democratic Party, who have been attacked by anonymous gunmen and Molotov cocktails after campaigning for legalization.
The mystery of why a cattle-deworming drug called levamisole is being cut into the world's cocaine supply is just a footnote in the drug war's century-long history of corruption, violence, addiction, and doom.
We will always have drug users, drug abusers, and drug producers—just like we'll always have casual drinkers, alcoholics, and distilleries. We cannot change that. What we can change is the level of violence and cruelty associated with the drug trade by elevating it to the legal market, where business disputes are settled with the rule of law instead of with machine guns and chain saws.
The only way out is to legalize—and regulate—everything. Pot, heroin, cocaine, meth: everything.
It is hard to know how many people around the world have gotten sick and/or died due to levamisole poisoning. U.S. law enforcement agencies estimate that 75 percent of the cocaine supply is being cut with levamisole, but the Centers for Disease Control stopped keeping track of levamisole-related hospitalizations and deaths in April. Levamisole test kits conceived by Nathan Messer at Dance- Safe, created by Dr. Mike Clark at Harborview, and distributed by The Stranger in late 2010—with help from DanceSafe and the People's Harm Reduction Alliance—show the Seattle cocaine supply contamination at closer to 85 percent. (Each test kit contained an anonymous survey with questions about rock and powder cocaine purchases throughout the Seattle area. So far, respondents have written in from Bremerton to Green Lake to the Central District—and one from Toronto.)
The human toll in Colombia, where most U.S.-bound cocaine is manufactured, and in Mexico, where the cocaine travels on its way to the U.S., is abundantly clear. Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported a conservative estimate of 30,196 drug-war-related deaths in Mexico alone since 2007, when Mexican president Felipe Calderón and George W. Bush, with the help of the U.S. Congress, agreed to crank up the drug war with the Mérida Initiative. Thirty thousand one hundred ninety-six deaths is the equivalent of the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers 10.9 times. Or an 11-night, sold-out run at Carnegie Hall in which every seat is stuffed with a corpse.
A few of those deaths:
October 19, 2009: Police find the body of Perla Pérez Tagle, a young human rights worker, at an intersection in Ciudad Juárez (pop. 1.4 million). Her bound and gagged body shows signs of torture and is covered by a blue plaid blanket. Her head is nearby, in a red plastic bag.
December 16, 2009: In the wealthy tourist destination of Cuernavaca, the City of Eternal Spring (pop. 350,000), narco kingpin Arturo Beltrán Leyva is killed in a two-hour gun battle at his apartment complex while residents cowered in the gym. In the following months, the city is taken over by narcos: "Bodies have been hung from overpasses, dumped outside police headquarters, or left on busy streets with their faces skinned," according to the Associated Press.
October 25, 2010: Police find the body of a plump old woman near her home in Nuevo Laredo (pop. 348,387). Her severed head, covered with frizzy gray hair, is tucked between her legs and one of her severed fingers is stuck into her mouth. A handwritten sign propped up by her body declares: "A esta pinche vieja la matamos por 'relaje'... esto les va a pasar a todos los pinches 'relajes.'" ("We killed this fucking old woman for snitching... this will happen to all the fucking snitches.") The message is signed in blood with a "Z" for Los Zetas—a squad of paramilitary narcos with one of the nastiest reputations in the drug war. The leaders of Los Zetas were originally trained in the U.S. at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, to fight the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. Later they were deployed against the narcos in Tamaulipas, but decided that they'd get a better deal working for the narcos than trying to stop them.
November 15, 2010: The entire population of Ciudad Mier (pop. 5,423) is evacuated after war breaks out between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas' former narco employers. The breaking point for many families comes when—after months of firefights, bodies in the streets, and torched businesses—a well-known local man is chopped into pieces and hung from a tree in the town square.
December 3, 2010: The Mexican army arrests Edgar Jimenez Lugo, a 14-year-old assassin nicknamed "El Ponchis" who has confessed to four murders. El Ponchis, a U.S. citizen, becomes a symbol of narco ruthlessness after BlogdelNarco.com releases home videos of the boy and some friends torturing a prisoner, gagged and suspended from the ceiling, while they laugh and take pictures on their cell phones. On one YouTube video, a boy believed to be El Ponchis answers a question by saying: "When we don't find the rivals, we kill innocent people, maybe a construction worker or a taxi driver." A prison director in Ciudad Juárez tells a reporter from Time magazine that teenage assassins are a new trend for the narcos, since "these kids are cheap, bloodthirsty, and they know the government can't punish them much."
December 27, 2010: The Press Emblem Campaign, based in Geneva, reports that 14 Mexican journalists have been murdered in the course of their work this year, making the drug war a more dangerous beat than reporting on Iraq, where eight journalists were killed in 2010. And on this date, two days after Christmas, six family members age 16 to 34 are found floating in the crater of an abandoned mine in the small town of Urique (pop. 984).
December 29, 2010: Around midnight, several cars pull up near a club in Acapulco (pop. 718,000). Men step out of the cars, fire shots into the club, and festoon its entrance with over 40 severed body parts, including chopped-up torsos, severed hands holding severed genitals, and flayed heads. The men drape two skinned faces over stanchions in front of the club, where they hang like rubber Halloween masks.
Some suggest that Mexico's drug-war dead are solely casualties of the cocaine and opium trades. That is plainly false: In the past two months, U.S. agents have found underground storehouses holding tens of tons of pot connected to tunnels under the United States/Mexico border. And in a Reuters story on December 14, unnamed U.S. agents claim to have found acres of greenhouses where narcos were growing high-quality, top- dollar "B.C. bud" instead of the long-derided "Mexican ditch weed." The marijuana trade, as innocent as it looks when you're buying a bag of grass off of a hippie, has blood in its wallet, too.
Those 30,000-plus dead present a major problem for the government of Mexico, which seems helpless to do much about it. The narco chaos could spark another revolution. Former Mexican president Vicente Fox has argued that the drug war has deeply corrupted Mexican police and military, as well as the rule of law. In 2010, at least two cities—in addition to the abandoned Ciudad Mier, which no longer has a city government—fired their police forces. The citizens of Ascension in the state of Chihuahua and Tepoztlán in the state of Morelos decided that, owing to corruption, they would be better off enforcing the law themselves. And in early December, citizens of Apatzingan in the state of Michoacan mounted a demonstration against the government and for the narcos. An Associated Press photograph from the protest flew around blogs and newspapers—that of a grave-faced little girl with pigtails and bangs holding up a handwritten sign that said: "La Familia Michoacana somos mas que un estado." ("La Familia Michoacana [a narco cartel]: We are bigger than/better than a state.")
In Mexico, thanks to the U.S.-funded drug war, the narcos have achieved in a few years what Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas could only dream about: In towns large and small, north and south, they have mounted a strong, palpable challenge to the authority of the Mexican federal government.
The narcos are not a separate entity from the government in the way that, in the U.S., the Bloods or the Crips or Capone's gangsters are separate from the government. In Mexico, the narcos are fused with the government—the police, the military, the senators. They share the same DNA.
This fusion began, perhaps, with Colonel Esteban Cantú Jiménez, a military caudillo who ruled Baja California Norte in the early 20th century with political connections and a private army of 1,800. Colonel Jiménez immediately saw the profit possibilities of the U.S.'s Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, which began the U.S. prohibition of opiates and cocaine. He took a cut of the illegal opium trade until he was smacked down by the Mexican government in 1920—but then secured amnesty via a former military colleague.
The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act came about because, around 1900, American newspapers, physicians, and politicians began to promote the idea that a white powder was a threat to white supremacy.
The Journal of the American Medical Association published an article announcing, "Negroes in the South are reported as being addicted to a new form of vice—that of 'cocaine sniffing' or the 'coke habit.'" Newspapers picked up the story and amplified it, claiming that cocaine turned black men into rapists of white women, as well as expert marksmen. (See "Negro Cocaine 'Fiends' Are a New Southern Menace" from the February 8, 1914 issue of the New York Times.) A 1910 federal report stated that "Southern sheriffs believed cocaine even rendered blacks impervious to .32-cal. bullets (as a result many police departments switched to .38-cal)."
Cocaine plus black people equaled a white supremacist's nightmare.
Dr. Hamilton Wright, Theodore Roosevelt's national opium commissioner, railed against opium use with similarly racist arguments. During the 1909 International Opium Commission in Shanghai, he said: "One of the most unfortunate phases of smoking opium in this country is the large number of women who have become involved and were living as common-law wives or cohabitating with Chinese in the Chinatowns of our various cities." (Interestingly, the physician and researcher Stephen R. Kandall has concluded that the majority of early opium addicts in the U.S. were women—who had been prescribed opiates by their doctors for "female problems.")
Riding the wave of racist drug hysteria, five-time congressman Francis Burton Harrison—a lawyer, member of the Democratic Party, and son of a mathematician from New Orleans named Burton Harrison who served as the private secretary to Confederate president Jefferson Davis during the Civil War—proposed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. It was voted into law on December 17, 1914, shortly after Harrison had resigned from Congress to serve as the governor-general of the Philippines.
In name, the Harrison Act (by sheer accident, I happen to be writing this paragraph on the 96th anniversary of its passage) purported to tax and regulate the sale of opiates and coca products. In reality, it was a way for the federal government to get a stranglehold on the U.S. drug trade. (That's why people know it as the Harrison Narcotics Act and not the Harrison Tax Act.) The Act went so far as to prohibit doctors from prescribing maintenance doses to opiate addicts. That provision was challenged and changed in the 1925 Supreme Court case Linder v. United States, in which the court decided that the federal government could not directly control medical practice—which is why we have methadone treatment programs today.
During the debate, Representative Thomas Upton Sisson (D-Mississippi) most bluntly articulated the purpose of the Harrison Act: "The purpose of this bill—and we are all in sympathy with it—is to prevent the use of opium in the United States, destructive as it is to human happiness and human life."
The destruction to "human happiness and human life" by pre–Harrison Act opium and coca use has been dwarfed—by orders of magnitude—by the destructiveness of the post–Harrison Act drug trade.
The Harrison Narcotics Act paved a global road to hell. Not just for the United States (from kids slinging drugs in the Chicago projects to overdosed celebrities in Los Angeles), but for Afghanistan, where the Taliban has propped itself up on the opium and heroin trade; for Myanmar, where an abusive military dictatorship funds itself by being the second-largest source of opium poppies and a new powerhouse of meth and ketamine production; for Laos, where geography and new highways make the country an ideal smuggling nexus for everything and the locals have developed a recent fondness for meth; for the favelas of Brazil; for Morocco, where I have personally seen hillsides covered in marijuana plants "protected" by bored-looking teenagers toting around AK-47s; for the Dominican Republic, which has become a major transit point for cocaine and heroin bound for the U.S. via Puerto Rico; for Colombia, where cocaine production has paid for a brutal 40-year war between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, the government, and narcos (the war has displaced 3.3 million people from their homes, or 7.2 percent of the country's population); for Ghana and Mali and other West African transshipment points for European-bound cocaine; and for pretty much every other country on the planet.
Observers such as Dominic Corva, a geographer at the University of Washington who has done extensive research on the cocaine trade, predict that as the Colombian and Mexican meat grinders become more violent, more troublesome, and less profitable, the cocaine production and smuggling market will move from Latin America to Africa.
According to a New York Times story from 2000, the Irkutsk region of Siberia went from 200 cases of HIV to at least 5,000 in a single year after heroin was introduced but drug-safety education was not. And several articles, from a 1985 Wall Street Journal story to a 2008 story in the Dartmouth College student paper, have described indoor marijuana horticulture at research stations in Antarctica.
Despite prohibition's best efforts, drugs are everywhere.
Estimates about the size of the drug trade and its costs are obviously politicized and highly unreliable—Colombian guerrillas have estimated the world drug trade to be 20 to 30 percent of the world economy, and published estimates from members of the Orejuela family (formerly of the Colombian Cali Cartel) claim that drug trafficking involves 12 percent of the U.S. labor force. But it would be in their interest to overestimate their importance.
Still, the Associated Press recently put the cost of the drug war at $1 trillion over the past 40 years and coaxed Gil Kerlikowske, President Obama's drug czar, into admitting that "in the grand scheme" the drug war "has not been successful. Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified." In an October editorial for CNN, Evan Wood, founder of the International Centre for Science and Drug Policy, put the cost of the U.S. drug war at $2.5 trillion—more than twice the Associated Press estimate—and cited Nobel Prize–winning conservative economist Milton Friedman: "There are some general features of a socialist enterprise, whether it's the post office, schools, or the war on drugs. The enterprise is inefficient, expensive, very advantageous to a small group of people, and harmful to a lot of people."
No matter how you play with the numbers, one thing is clear—the drug trade is making big money for the criminal side. Otherwise, it wouldn't be worth the risk (life, limb, loved ones, lifetime imprisonment). And it's been lucrative for law enforcement, too: from Colonel Jiménez in the 1910s on down to contemporary Mexican officials and their relatives (the brother of Carlos Salinas, president of Mexico from 1988 to 1994, was convicted of arranging a hit against their brother-in-law) to the military-industrial business lobbyists who convince the Coast Guard and Customs to buy expensive enforcement toys.
"How much economic benefit has the drug war produced for the private sector?" asks Dominic Corva, the University of Washington geographer. "It's not just profits, it's jobs—sales jobs, accounting jobs, transportation jobs, agricultural jobs, and so forth. Obviously, no one has any remotely reliable estimate, but I bet it would dwarf the financial costs—thus making it a hell of a taxpayer- subsidized industry, a transfer of public funds to private."
Who pays for all of this? We do. Not just drug users who subsidize the crime side, but workaday U.S. taxpayers who subsidize the law enforcement side. Despite the billions of dollars we've spent trying to make them disappear, American drug users are not disappearing.
Plus, there are the human costs to U.S. families disrupted by drug incarcerations, or innocents slaughtered not by narcos in Mexico or Colombia but by law enforcement officials in the United States.
Take the story of Esequiel Hernandez Jr., an 18-year-old goatherd living in Texas, a mile from the border. On May 20, 1997, he was tending his family's goats and carrying a .22-caliber, pre-WWI rifle that he routinely had with him to defend the goats against rattlesnakes and wild dogs, according to his family. The U.S. Marines on drug patrol were carrying M-16s. Dressed in ghillie suits (a kind of shaggy camouflage that makes the wearer look like a Sasquatch), the marines spotted Hernandez watering the family goats and stalked him for 20 minutes before the boy, according to the marines, fired a single shot. It's unclear whether he was shooting at a tin can or at the marines—or whether he was even aware he was being watched. Maybe he thought the four creatures in ghillie suits were hairy monsters. Whatever happened, Hernandez was shot and the U.S. government paid his family $1.9 million to settle a wrongful death claim. No evidence has ever been presented that Hernandez was involved in the drug trade, and the marine who shot Hernandez was never charged. He was the first American civilian to be killed by the American military since the Kent State massacre.
Or take Kathryn Johnston, the 88-year-old Atlanta woman who, when she saw men breaking into her house of 17 years, fired a shot into the ceiling. Unbeknownst to her, the men were undercover narcotics agents, who fired 39 shots back, killing her. Once the agents realized she was innocent—they had falsely claimed to have purchased cocaine at her house in order to get a no-knock warrant—they planted marijuana in her basement, framing the dead woman. Eventually, the agents' stories came to pieces. In 2009, three years after killing Johnston, three officers were sentenced for manslaughter. It came out at the trials that other Atlanta police officers have used similar tactics.
For too long, the critique of drug prohibition has been framed selfishly—it's all about us and our liberty and our right to seek pleasure however we see fit. A passage from John Stuart Mill's On Liberty is a favorite in pro-legalization editorials published everywhere from the Economist to High Times:
The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part that merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
But let's set aside that abstract selfish stuff for a second. Put aside the facts about domestic costs for law enforcement. Put aside the fact that the U.S. has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, that the number of people in jail on drug charges has increased twelvefold since 1980, that (in 2000) 22 percent of U.S. prisoners were in for drug charges (according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, each prisoner costs roughly $22,600 per year).
Also put aside the fact that every state in the union is in a major budget crisis, many of which could be solved altogether by legalizing, regulating, and taxing the drug market so states like Washington wouldn't have to ax health care for children and job programs for adults with developmental disabilities. (Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron estimates that legalization, through a combination of law enforcement savings and tax income, would put $76.8 billion per year into the U.S. economy.)
Let's think about the rest of the world for a moment.
One law, passed in 1914 and designed to save lives, has resulted in uncountable deaths: from the deaths that result from the dangers of unregulated product (which results in overdoses and dangerous cutting agents like levamisole and costs taxpayers every time an uninsured person winds up in the emergency room) to the extraordinary violence of the extralegal market (where people settle disputes with machetes and bullets instead of lawsuits).
The argument that prohibition is a profound and catastrophic failure has already been made by intelligent people across the political spectrum: the middle-of-the-road Brookings Institution (in 2008), economist Miron (for the past 15 years), even John D. Rockefeller Jr., a lifelong teetotaler who donated between $350,000 and $700,000 to the temperance movement (that's between $3.8 million and $7.7 million in 2010 dollars). After years of watching the alcohol prohibition laws, he had to admit that they simply didn't work. In a letter printed on the front page of the New York Times in 1932, he wrote:
When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.
In 2008, Congress passed a bipartisan resolution, sponsored by Representatives Bart Stupak (D-MI) and Howard Coble (R-NC), celebrating the 75th anniversary of repeal. Oddly, the language in the resolution doubles as an excellent argument for ending all prohibitions. The resolution pointed out that
passage of the 18th Amendment, which prohibited "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors" in the United States, resulted in a dramatic increase in illegal activity, including unsafe black market alcohol production, organized crime, and noncompliance with alcohol laws.
Dramatic increase in illegal activity? Check. (Those 30,000-plus deaths in Mexico since 2007.) Unsafe black market? Check. (Levamisole is one tiny example of how prohibition laws make drugs more dangerous.) Organized crime? Check. (Drug gangs in Mexico are holding entire cities, states, and law enforcement agencies hostage—see also the Taliban, the Bloods, the Crips, Latin Kings, and the Salvadorian gang MS13, which is currently helping run the cocaine trade to Seattle and has distinguished itself with cruel machete murders and by calling out hits on U.S. federal agents.) Noncompliance with the law at every level? Obviously.
Why does the logic of that 2008 resolution apply to alcohol but not to other drugs? I call Congressman Coble to ask him and I get through to his press liaison, Ed McDonald. "It's ironic you should call with that question today," he says. "Right now, I'm in North Carolina in a beautiful vineyard owned by Richard Childress, the NASCAR driver. You know Richard Childress?"
"Anyway, we're having a party for the staff: There are these beautiful buildings, acres of beautiful vineyards..."
He says he'll ask the congressman—who is feeling under the weather—my question and get back to me the next day.
"You know," McDonald says the next day, "I asked him, and he said pretty much what I said yesterday—that as a society we perceive alcohol to have a value that we don't apply to hard drugs. He sees a value that alcohol provides to society that he doesn't see provided by narcotics."
So it's about social perception? Nothing empirical? Just popular cultural notions?
"Yes, that's right."
So there you have it, straight from Representative Coble, who cosponsored the resolution to celebrate repeal and its attendant increase in product safety and decreases in violence and organized crime—the difference between prohibition of alcohol and prohibition of other drugs isn't about data and rational argument. When will American policymakers, and the American public, start to take these questions seriously—based on facts, research, and real stories, instead of the race-baiting bogeymen and puritan fictions of a century ago?
The impetus for this series was to investigate—with the assistance of law enforcement agencies, doctors, academics, policymakers, and drug dealers—why a dangerous chemical called levamisole is being cut into the world's cocaine supply. We have failed to figure it out. Some lab techs and high-level research-and-development narco scientists probably know, but they haven't been forthcoming.
Nevertheless, we have discovered something—the mystery of the tainted cocaine is a just a speck, a tenpenny nail holding down a single shingle on the giant, monstrous mansion of the drug war. When will we get serious about tearing down this house of horrors?
That's the real mystery.
This article has been updated since its original publication.