The war on drugs has taken a new and somewhat bizarre turn with the interview of El Chapo – the notorious Mexican drug lord – conducted by actor, Sean Penn and published in The Rolling Stone. It created a bit of a stir among the chattering classes and a lot of embarrassment for Mexican and American drug enforcement agencies who have been trying to track him down ever since he escaped from a maximum security prison six months ago. Meanwhile satirists, critics of the drug laws and Mexicans in general have been having a good laugh. A lot of them admire the nerve of the fugitive, it seems.
Guzman – his real name – wound up being captured, in part because of the interview, and is expect to be extradited to the USA to face charges ranging from murder on down. He will undoubtedly be convicted and shoved in a prison somewhere – if his money doesn’t, once again, help him escape.
The most interesting thing El Chapo said in his interview was that nothing – his capture, his death, millions more for police or fences or prisons – will interfere with the operation of the illegal drug trade. In that he is probably right. If the war on drugs was an actual competition between nation states, the United States would have been on its knees a long time ago.
Prohibitions never stop the prohibited product being consumed. The prohibitions of alcohol did nothing for America but increase deaths from tainted bootleg alcohol and establish the Mafia as the major crime organization in a multitude of cities. It also founded the fortunes of a number of still prominent Canadian families but that’s another story.
It is unclear to me why America is so determined to prohibit – rather than control – the use of drugs. No doubt, drugs do harm but there is plenty of evidence that drug use can be mitigated if treated as a medical condition rather than a moral failing. Studies in cities in England where pilot projects temporarily turned heroin use into a medical issue rather than a legal one saw dramatic reductions in death rates, a virtual elimination of petty crime and even the return of some addicts to productive work and family life – even while their addition was maintained and managed. The experience in Portugal has been similar.
Movements to decriminalize or even legalize drug use in America have taken halting steps, focusing on marijuana which is not, apparently, physically addictive though it may be psychologically so. In the long term, government control of drug sales will reduce the negative impacts of the drug trade and make it less attractive to criminal elements. There will continue to be some violations of the law but it will be reduced to the level of the local bootlegger – a problem for society but seldom a threat.
I’ve long believed that all drugs should be decriminalized, medicalized, regulated and, in some case, legalized. The savings in terms of law enforcement, health care, and personal suffering would be considerable. And I’m not alone – the mayors of America’s largest cities have called for the same thing.
You have to wonder who exactly is profiting – aside from drug lords like Guzman – from the current system?
And that’s ten minutes.