It’s Time to De-Escalate the Drug War

And we never really face what is in front of us, never face what is inside our gutless language of cartels and drug lords and homeland security, never face that forces are unleashed on the land with names like poverty, a fix, murder, and despair, and our tools cannot master these forces. …Things happen and no one says much. Then after a while, no one admits the thing even happened.

-Charles Bowden on life in Ciudad Juarez

US Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual resigned last week after cables he sent were released by WikiLeaks suggesting he thought Mexican police and military forces were crippled by corruption.

Truth was no defense in Pascual’s case.

Since right-wing President Felipe Calderon won a razor thin majority in 2006 and immediately declared a bloody shooting war on drug cartels, some cartel leaders have been killed or arrested. But, then, like mushrooms, as happened in Colombia with the killing of Jose Escobar, the number of cartels has grown from four to seven. In the crossfire, over 34,000 Mexican citizens have been murdered, many in notoriously gruesome fashion without a shred of mercy.

It seems the cartels have calculated that their strong suit in countering Calderon’s bully war – fought in conjunction with US drug warriors and with lots of US money — is extreme and certain violence of the sort that means not only will you be gruesomely tortured, dismembered and killed, but so will your entire family.

In his book Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Field, Charles Bowden paints a horrific picture of a city overwhelmed to the point of mass numbness and the inability to even remotely address the present descent into barbarism. Only two percent of the crimes in the city ever go to court, let alone end in a conviction.

The Supply, center, and left and right, the Cost.The Supply, center, and left and right, the Cost.

Calderon’s war, most agree, is a dismal failure. He cannot run for re-election, but since he wants his National Action Party (PAN) to win big in next year’s election, some shift or change may be in the air. Security is now in the forefront of people’s minds in Mexico. Naturally, life and death trumps concerns about drug trafficking.

US dollars aside, Calderon has repeatedly slammed the US for not addressing the demand for drugs here that drives the supply side in Mexico. He is also critical of the ease with which guns and automatic weapons pass from the US into Mexico.

“As far as reducing the demand for drugs, they haven’t done so,” Calderon told the El Universal newspaper. “As far as reducing the flow of arms, they haven’t — it has increased.”

In one embarrassing incident, two AK-47s that Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents allowed to be shipped to Mexico as part of a sting operation were used in the murder of a US Border Patrol agent.

Critics of the Drug War have been saying for years that the solution is to face the harsh fact that the “war” begun in the Reagan years is a tragic and burdensome failure that only continues to exist on its own insidious momentum. The fundamental concept is wrong, and despite his own faults, Mexican President Calderon is right that the roots of the problem are here in the United States, not in Mexico, Central America and South America.

It needs to be understood that the illegal drug business operates like any business and follows the same basic laws of supply and demand. It is free-private enterprise at its most basic: The more risk, the more profit there is to be gained. For many inner city kids, it’s virtually a Horatio Alger story of working hard and making it. I see that in the prison writing I encounter regularly in the creative writing class I’ve taught for ten years in a Philadelphia prison.

Instead of trying to crush this powerful business cycle at the supply side through police and military violence, with courts and prisons, it makes much more sense to be pragmatic, recognize the power of the business cycle, then use social and medical institutions to address those individuals who fail to comport themselves to a agreed-upon social contract.

Is this radical? Of course, it’s radical. The Tea Party is radical. It’s radical in the constructive sense of tracing a problem to the root decisions that pointed it toward what is now a dysfunctional condition. It’s like saying, “Wake up and smell the coffee!”

Instead of worrying where drugs are grown and manufactured and by whom and how much profits they are making, we could instead do like the Dutch and realize there is going to always be temptation in life and, then, seriously ask why so many people in this country are compelled to use drugs. Then address that.

It’s not as if there’s no precedent in American history: The end of Prohibition in the 1930s followed this exact arc. Instead of continuing to futilely focus on stopping supply and, in the process, encouraging a gangster underworld, state corruption and social hypocrisy — instead, recognize we can’t stop human nature. It can’t be done.

To borrow from E. F. Schumacher, author of that famous 1973 book, Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, the solution is to address our very real drug problem – “as if people mattered.” In the sociological and criminological worlds the concept is known as Harm Reduction. Instead of exacerbating a problem, figure out how to reduce it.

Reasonable arguments like this are not new, but they perennially face an incredible barrier that can be summed up best this way: The most insurmountable addiction problem encountered in the Drug War is not the addiction to drugs; it is the societal addiction to police, the military, courts and prisons. One of the foremost problems keeping these institutions jammed up is their determined focus on illegal drug sales, victimless drug use and the very real crimes associated with obtaining funds to purchase drugs, which of course are so expensive due to the business risks associated with the Drug War. It’s all circular.

I attended a seminar recently called Trauma 101 taught by a psychiatrist named Sandra Bloom. She asked if anyone had heard of something called the ACE Study or knew what an ACE Score was. Of 35 in the room, two raised their hands. Then she asked who had heard of swine flu, and everybody raised their hand. She laughed knowingly.

ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences, a collaboration between the Center for Disease Control and the health provider Kaiser Permanente. It focuses on “analyzing the relationship between multiple categories of childhood trauma and health and behavioral outcomes later in life.”

The score is based on a list of 10 questions, five of which ask about experiences of abuse one received before the age of 18 (physical, psychological, sexual, emotional and neglect) and the rest ask about things going on in the household one was raised in as a child (substance abuse, mental illness, divorce, incarceration and abuse of mother).

As a person’s ACE Score rises, Bloom said confidently, the probability of that person abusing drugs, alcohol and a host of other problems, including violence, abuse of others and incarceration, rises with it. It’s shown to be fairly predictable.

The way we address problems like drug abuse now, she said, in fact exacerbates and compounds the problems focused on by the ACE Score. She cited a study that essentially concluded, “if we could eliminate childhood trauma we could eliminate 78 percent of drug addiction problems.”

Alright. I can hear the chorus of nay-sayers now about “those damn liberals” and “that’s socialism” and “we can’t coddle criminals” and so forth. That’s the voice of denial from people addicted to police and prisons.

In the Netherlands they have largely figured it out. When I was there a few years ago with a small group that included a former attorney general of Pennsylvania, a psychiatrist told us how the Dutch mother teaches her child to be aware of temptation in the world and to trust his or her “inner locus of control.” As an ancient port city, temptation has always existed in Amsterdam, he said. The Dutch learn to deal with it — or the state helps them based on an agreed upon social contract.

Although we pride ourselves on our independence, in America we have come to rely on “exterior loci of control,” the police, military, courts and prisons. The trouble is when you pit this tough-guy exterior system against a softer, interior-based harm reduction system, you realize the former costs vastly more money for more and more prisons and other means of control; plus, as you ratchet up the tools of state violence you provoke a violent opposition. The result is what we have: a disastrous, never-ending cycle of violence.

Clearly, the Drug War is not working in Mexico. As The New York Times reports the cartels and their violence are now moving into the small republics of Central America. People are becoming terrified.

As President Calderon’s PAN party is forced to address the failures of his war policy and the very real fears of the Mexican people, maybe there’s a chance someone up here in Gringolandia will overhear his message that the real problem of the Drug War resides right under our noses in the demand for drugs.

Because, again, Calderon is right. And, furthermore, with time, patience and a focus on our demand problem we can go a long way to solving our drug problem.