As lawmakers scramble to address the surge of violence spawned by Mexican drug cartels seeping into our borders, the question of legalizing drugs has once again been raised -- and not just by a bunch of hippies.
Russ Jones, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), tells Hair Balls that changing drug policy could not only cut off the Mexican cartels at the knees, but save money and reduce the prison population in the US, which has the largest penal system in the world.
"We deal with alcohol abuse as a health problem not as a criminal problem," he said, "and I believe that is how we should handle drug abuse. We should decide how it's handled -- Not the drug cartels."
Jones, who was in town to tape a PBS show, doesn't belong to the stereotypical "just let me smoke in peace: marijuana doesn't hurt anybody" crowd. He has spent 30 years in law enforcement in a variety of capacities: as an undercover narcotics detective, as part of a DEA taskforce, and as government intelligence in Nicaragua during the Iran-Contra affair.
Having these types of guys speak against drug prohibition gets the attention of an audience, Mike Smithson, an official from LEAP, tells Hair Balls. "They are shocked that this gray-haired civil servant with 30 years on the job is speaking against the war on drugs," he said.
"When we make our presentations," Smithson said, "[our speakers] explain to audiences that they aren't there to endorse drugs at all, but that to leave these commodities in the hands of terrorists and cartels is worse [than legalizing them]."
It's only a matter of time before prohibition is repealed, Smithson said. More people are starting to look at drug legalization as a serious option even if President Obama didn't in his recent response to a town-hall question.
But don't go out on the street brandishing your bong just yet.
The drug cartels and the Department of Justice have a kind of symbiotic relationship, Jones said.
Agencies know that using the war-on-drugs rhetoric is a surefire way to get an infusion of cash and new toys, and the prison system relies on it to stay at capacity.
The war on drugs hasn't worked any better than alcohol prohibition did in the `20s and `30s, Smithson said. The prohibition created Al Capone. The war on drugs created Pablo Escobar and now Joaquin Guzman.
Jones started his law-enforcement career right around the time Nixon coined the term "war on drugs." He began to question the tactics of the war on drugs during his time working undercover narcotics on organized crime. When he went to Russia to consult Soviet officials on their drug problem, he realized that the war cannot be won. If the Soviet Union couldn't win the war on drugs with its hard-line tactics, then how could we, he said.
If you legalize drugs, Jones said, you are still going to have drug abuse, but you will significantly reduce related crimes. "You don't have drive-by shootings between Miller and Budweiser."
"Look what we have done with tobacco in the past 50 years. [Use] is down 70 percent without firing one shot or throwing anyone in jail."
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About 50 percent of the drug problem is marijuana, he said, and in the past couple of years the Department of Justice has made an amount of arrests that is equivalent to the population of New Mexico. Of these cases, roughly 88 percent are for possession of marijuana.
If the poor get arrested, well they are just shit out of luck.
Recent events have caused a spike in LEAP membership, Smithson said, and the prohibition discussion crosses political boundaries. They have gotten support from both sides, and they've received some surprising inquiries for speakers, including one from the Webb County Republican Women's Club.
LEAP has more than 12,000 members worldwide consisting of cops, judges, DEA agents, and FBI. Most are retired and some are anonymous. Joining LEAP while active in law enforcement in the US, Smithson said, is career suicide.