Confessions of a drug warrior - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Confessions of a drug warrior

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Posted: Thursday, June 23, 2011 1:35 pm

Four decades ago, I was a drug warrior. I was recruited in 1972 to administer the think-tank portion of the Drug Abuse Council.

Addictive drug use (heroin and cocaine) was on the rise. "Recreational" use of marijuana, hashish and other substances were increasing. An alarmed public looked at drug abuse as the leading cause of property crime.

Youth values and attitudes were considered to be running amok -- like protests and resistance to Richard Nixon's conduct of the Vietnam war. He had run for president appealing to the "silent majority" who wanted government to get tough on crime and pot-smokers.

But at the council, we began to realize in a very short time how marijuana and hashish could originate in many places or that opium poppy from Afghanistan and cocaine from South America were not easy to control. Other concoctions could be made with a good chemistry set. It was evident that the "interdiction policy," with lots of uniforms, equipment, guns, sophisticated intelligence methods, and huge payrolls were the makings of a new industry.

To get a fix on what was going on, some serious thinkers served as "fellows." Wesley Pomeroy, head of security at Woodstock and later Berkley's policy chief, provided insight into how good law-enforcement works. The sociology and ethnology of Jerry Mandel and Harvey Feldman was state of the art. David Musto completed his classic book, "An American Disease," about how the marijuana laws came about.

English psychiatrist Margret Trip compared how the British approached the same concerns. Carl Akins provided the very first federal-budget estimates as to how much the government was really spending on drug-abuse control. Mathea Falco became a research-based and family and children's advocate.

Larry Redlinger contributed a template for understanding how illicit-drug production and consumer use operates like any business. Trade routes -- whether heroin tar or marijuana harvests, moved through places like "El Chuco'' (El Paso, Texas) through small-time supply-chain "mules" to the border regions and later almost to any port of entry. Competition through drug rivalries could reduce street values, and price wars could erupt into localized violence as more users and franchises grew. Supply chains were interrupted by government efforts but hardly eliminated.

Most shocking of all is how supply chains were probably used by para-government units for alternative sources of funds and to buy support for various groups.

Nearly 40 years ago we already could see this coming about, leading some fellows to advocate decriminalization and treatment reforms in Social Policy magazine. Yesterday's controversial proposal is today's common sense.

Recently, former president Jimmy Carter, a Nobel laureate, endorsed the finding of other former presidents and prominent world leaders that the drug war, as we know it, is a failure and it must end.

It is a responsible act to control the illicit movement of hundreds of billions of laundered dollars, reduce the untold number of prisoners for minor wrong-doing, revolving-door medical treatment, and the mockery made of law enforcement. Not to adopt a new course is doubly irresponsible after what we have learned in 40 years about psychotropic drugs: how compulsions are different from an addictions and how they interact in the human brain. Neuroscience can now replace phobias, moral preachings and political rhetoric as our public-policy guide.

There are sensible measures budget-cutters can take if they want to reduce government and spending. A start begins by looking at globalized, heavy-handed, militarized drug enforcement.

Protestations about what drug treatment and decriminalization teaches children is a cheap shot. A care-giving policy is the influence one would consider at a time like this. I think the next Drug Abuse Council should be encouraged on the scene. It could help guide how to dismantle the apparatus created long ago and undo something that doesn't work. Forty years from now, it would save future drug warriors from looking back and talking about what should have been.

Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail him at

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