It is axiomatic that whenever a government, Federal, state, or local, bans anything—Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses, alcohol, and drugs are all good twentieth century examples—the immediate and inevitable result is a brisk black-market trade in the banned item. And whenever the banned item is a source of significant revenue (you can forget Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses), immense black-market profits result in a proliferation of cunning and ruthless people elbowing their way to the trough.
The most obvious example of this would be Prohibition, which transformed a bunch of small-time petty gangs into fearsome and murderous organized crime families and the legendary names associated with them: Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel… The list goes on, and while the names have changed, those organized crime families are still thriving.
Peripherally, many purportedly respectable people benefited yesterday and benefit today. Yesterday, it is estimated that Al Capone alone paid out the equivalent in today’s money of six million dollars ($6,000,000!) every month to the Chicago police department to turn a blind eye to his bootlegging operations. Today… Who knows?
The profits made today in the drug trade make Prohibition’s profits look like chump change, and some of the players in the drug game—not the street dealers, but the men who make the real money—seem very respectable; some of them may be very famous public figures.
I have probably written about this incident before, but about twelve or thirteen years ago I was hunting Coues deer with some friends in the mountains of Sonora, Mexico. Coming home, we crossed the border in Agua Prieta (dark water—what a great name!), Douglas, Arizona’s Mexican sister. You have to cross there, at that particular Sonora/Arizona border crossing, because that’s where both the United States Department of Agriculture and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service have officers on duty. The US government, for reasons of its own, is making it more and more difficult for American hunters to bring trophies into the country from abroad, and the rules and regulations, the forms required by both agencies, become more labyrinthine each year.
We were the only party returning from Mexico that day, but the dread might of the USFWS was in no particular hurry to do its job, so I passed the time by chatting with one of the over-worked and underpaid Border Patrol agents. He was a canine officer with a Belgian Malinois. It’s a dog I happen to know a little about, so we talked about the breed’s strengths and weaknesses, why it is replacing German shepherds on many police departments, and about various dogs we had been fortunate enough to share our lives with. Then he was called away and my friends and I stood by our Suburban, cooling our heels as we waited for our forms to be brought back to us.
About twenty minutes later the canine officer reappeared. He walked in from the inspection area with another guard holding a man in handcuffs, and three or four other guards carrying boxes, each about the size of a wine carton, wrapped in layer after layer of black plastic and duct tape. I hailed him.
“In those boxes?”
“Wow. What happens to the smuggler now?”
“He’s an American, so we’ll send him north.”
“You mean you hand him over to some other police jurisdiction?”
“No, we just turn him loose.”
“What! He had all that hashish and you’re going to turn the son of a bitch loose! Why?”
“We have to. It costs too much to prosecute, and it’s almost impossible to get a conviction, so we’ve been ordered, unless it’s 250-pounds or more, don’t bother. Under 250, we just turn them loose and send them home.”
That was twelve years ago. If my cursory research is accurate, that 250-pound weight limit has been dramatically increased since then, but that was the first time I realized the government’s war on drugs was, shall we say, somewhat less than serious.
Let’s take another anecdotal look at drugs in America.
In the early seventies, when I first moved to New York to pursue an acting career, I lived on the Lower East Side, well-known at that time as a violent, drug-infested, crime-ridden hell-hole. Bobby Driscoll’s body was found in the rubble of an abandoned tenement just down the street from where I lived. (He was the child star of, among many other movies, Treasure Island, and I used his death in the novel, Return to Laughter.) It happened before I moved there, but the tenement was still there and still abandoned and still used by what were then called junkies.
But when I traveled up to the tony Upper East Side, to rehearse scenes for acting class with some of the beautiful models who were successful enough to be able to afford to live there, drugs and their concomitant violence faded away as I rode north on the subway. On the rare occasions I was able to afford to travel up to Vermont to visit my mother, I traveled to a serene and drug-free rural paradise where small family dairies still dominated the landscape, and men prided themselves on their ability to be taciturn in their responses to city folk. “Yup.” “Ay, yah.” “Can’t get there from here.” That paradigm has changed.
Seven or eight years ago, I was sent to write about a hunting lodge in central Missouri. As I always do on such assignments, I did some homework in advance and read about a little village nearby that had most of its houses on the National Register of Historic Places. The first morning, I was sitting in a blind with my guide, who happened to the manager of the place. He was a nice man, knowledgeable, courteous, and accommodating, so I was a little stunned by what happened next. It was still dark out, well before sunrise, and I could see the lights of a small town in the distance, about ten miles away. I asked my host what I was looking at, and he named the village I had read about.
“Oh,” I said, “I’d like to go see that place. I’ve read about it.”
“You can go,” he replied, as if he were shutting a door, “but I won’t take you there.”
It turned out that it was the local methamphetamine production center, and he considered it so dangerous he wouldn’t even drive through.
I could give you a dozen other examples of similar scenarios I have encountered, but the bottom line is that drug addiction in America has transformed itself, in less than half a century, from a dirty and shameful thing in the poorest and most disreputable inner-city neighborhoods, to something found in historic villages in bucolic rural landscapes, on the streets of upscale shopping areas in certain especially drug-tolerant cities, and in affluent, well-educated suburban neighborhoods.
That’s the result of America’s war on drugs.
Politico, an online magazine that is considered to have a pronounced liberal bias, recently published a lengthy article detailing, in considerable depth, the extent to which the Obama administration delayed, hampered, stymied, and ultimately derailed an extensive, long-term, and very dangerous Drug Enforcement Agency operation that linked together the elements of an extraordinarily complex and labyrinthian merging of drugs, terrorism, money laundering, and weapons smuggling. It involved the Iranian government, their proxy terrorist organization Hezbollah, Mexican drug cartels, organized crime, the Russian government, various South American and Latin American governments (primarily Venezuela), an international consortium of arms dealers, and multiple murderous Mexican and Latin American gangs, all of whom have joined hands in an elaborate scheme to smuggle drugs into the United States, carefully launder their vast profits, and for Hezbollah to use said profits to buy a variety of arms, from assault rifles to missiles to weapons of mass destruction, all intended to be used against the United States and Israel. It’s actually very clever, if you look at it the right way. Use America’s weakness to make the money to buy the weapons to attack an already softened-up and weak America. Good thinking.
That the Obama administration did this primarily to protect their Iranian nuclear arms treaty is undeniable; even some former Obama administration officials do not deny it. What is unclear is the extent to which that administration was influenced by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Justice, Department of State, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Again, it is undeniable that all of those agencies colluded with the Obama administration to derail the DEA’s covert operation (code-named “Cassandra”), but where it gets a little murky is in the reasons those agencies give to excuse their allowing Hezbollah to smuggle drugs (primarily cocaine, in Hezbollah’s case) into America across the Mexican border, the same border that President Trump and deplorables like me only want to see closed because we’re racists.
One of the results of having many friends in many different law enforcement agencies is that I get told a lot of intriguing stories. Almost always, these are told simply in the vein of personal anecdotes intended to show the many and varied aspects of the law enforcement game: danger, stupidity of criminals, intelligence of officers, occasional stupidity of officers, intended comedic effect, unintentional comedic result, unbelievable courage, icy fear, bumbling idiocy, dumb luck, true heroism, comradery, venality, honor, the whole range of experiences and variations of behavior the human animal is prone to. But just as all intelligence agencies gather endless amounts of information over long periods in order to draw conclusions, so too, after forty years of anecdotes, I have been able to isolate certain recurring themes.
One recurring theme is that certain banks—I mean American banks, with household names—have long been involved in what is vulgarly called laundering (the banks have more refined names for it) drug money for cartels with impunity because said cartels are assisting the CIA, and the CIA shields both cartels and banks.
Another recurring theme is that certain highly placed American politicians have closed down specific drug operations in specific cities at specific times for unknown reasons. I would like you, Gentle Reader, to think of me as an imaginative genius writing books that flow solely out of the creative soil of my fertile brain, but in The Horseman at Midnight¸ the story Sheriff Esquivel tells Matt, about why he had to leave San Diego, that story is, almost verbatim, the story I was told by a small town police chief, now deceased, in a California county I prefer not to identify.
And that brings us to the theme that recurs most often, indeed consistently, from completely unrelated sources (DEA officers, both active duty and retired, in different parts of the country; Border Patrol, active and retired in different states; officers in major metropolitan police departments, active and retired, in different cities in different parts of the country; sheriffs and deputy-sheriffs in different rural parts of the country; even once a military intelligence officer) and that theme is that the CIA has, for a long time, been thwarting DEA operations both overseas and along the Mexican border in exchange for information and even occasional assistance (the imagination boggles) from drug cartels.
Does any of this rise above the level of rumor and gossip, the kind of yarns told by some very tough guys after a few beers? Of course not; but when you hear variations on the same theme, many times over the course of forty years or more, from many varied and disparate sources, none of whom have anything to gain, most of whom are retired now, you begin to wonder. And a few years ago, trying to do some research for a magazine article, when I asked an active DEA agent if he knew anything about a certain event, I heard something close to fear in his voice as he told me he could not discuss any activity of the DEA, current or past. End of conversation.
Again, none of this amounts to anything more than hearsay, but there are two conclusions I can draw from it: one is that America’s almost half century-long war on drugs is an epic and costly failure; and the other is that none of us should hold our breath waiting for the United States government to do anything about today’s drug problem.
Recreational marijuana is being legalized by more and more states, in direct violation of the federal law classifying marijuana as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. I have no problem at all with the medical use of marijuana, but I have a problem with states flouting federal law, that problem being Article VI, Clause 2, which grants supremacy to Federal law. I am a firm and committed believer in the Tenth Amendment (states’ rights), but as the situation now stands, marijuana remains illegal under Federal law, and until the issue is resolved in congress by a change of the law, one way or the other, it will remain illegal at the Federal level, and for individual states to ignore that law creates a confusing and potentially dangerous situation for both users and law enforcement alike.
What to do? The war on drugs ain’t working, so what other options are there?
As I see it, there are three possibilities to do something about the egregious drug-death rate and the egregious violent crime rate associated with gangs in drug distribution hubs (think Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, Oakland, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Cleveland, Cincinnati).
One is to quit trading one set of American lives for information to save another set of American lives, which is what the CIA appears to be doing, and really and truly crack down on all illegal drugs. If I were a CIA or FBI intelligence officer tasked with that little thing—so frequently laughed at and disregarded by our public servants today—known as my oath of office, namely to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, I might ask myself if a vague goal of thwarting potential terrorists who might attempt to cross our porous southern border or attack our sole reliable ally, Israel, is of greater or lesser value than a goal of having a nation sentient enough to be able to protect itself and, indeed, be worthy of protection.
Another option is to legalize marijuana, but crack down on everything else. That option is mitigated by the argument that marijuana is considered a gateway drug. I suspect it is a gateway drug, but it also has legitimate medical uses, and recreationally, I have yet to hear a serious case that can prove it is more dangerous than alcohol. Marijuana and certain other so-called “soft” drugs are legal in the Netherlands, and it might be beneficial for the US government to study what the results of that legalization have been. The advantage to having the government regulate and tax marijuana, the way alcohol is regulated and taxed, would be much-needed revenue in the federal coffers, and a drop in crime.
The third option would be just to legalize everything and have the government regulate and tax it all. This would reduce all violent crime, but especially murder, to insignificant levels (any law enforcement officer will tell you that about 90% to 95% percent of all murders are drug related) and provide fantastic revenues, but… But it does seem a cold-blooded and Machiavellian way to run a country. The certain percentage of the population that is prone to addiction would just have to be written off as the cost of a safe society, and most of those are good and decent people who are unfortunate enough to have an illness. I think most of us would have a hard time living with that.
I’m neither wise enough nor arrogant enough to decide what the best solution is, but I’m also not so stupid that I would waste another half century doing what has proven to be insanely ineffectual.