EL PASO — While the death-toll rises and fear grips the citizens of the El Paso/Juarez border due to the mounting violence of warring drug cartels, El Paso’s leaders are not resigned to do nothing.
They are urgently seeking solutions, promoting dialogue and evaluating current policies in attempts to unravel the massive drug problem that plagues the country and has devastated the region.
El Paso is a fertile place for these conversations. Last week, community leaders, scholars and experts from across the country, participated in a University of Texas at El Paso sponsored U.S. War on Drugs conference.
Many attending the conference learned that in the U.S. marijuana was first declared illegal in El Paso in 1914, in what many say was an anti-immigration response to a large influx of immigrants.
“It started here, let’s end it here,” said William Martin, a panelist at the conference and fellow at the Baker Institute and professor of sociology at Rice University, who pointed to the irony of El Paso’s circumstances.
It was also El Paso City Councilman Beto O’Rourke, whose unanimously approved proposal to consider a debate on ending drug prohibition drew a storm of national attention and criticism and a rapid veto from Mayor John Cook. It is only fitting that El Paso continue to be the platform where intellectuals and civic leaders forge the discussion for a situation that has no easy solutions but demands action.
Many believe, that policy is at the heart of the problem. If making marijuana illegal is supposed to make it harder to buy, then why do surveys report that kids find it easier to get marijuana than alcohol?
These are some of the questions that Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, posed in attempts to reform the current 40-year-old policies that he says have only proven to be more fatal and costly.
“If you want to know how to get marijuana, just ask your kids,” said Nadelmann.
In a panel entitled “Alternative Strategies and Policy Proposals for the Drug War,” NPR correspondent John Burnett served as moderator and played devil’s advocate to the representatives who advocated alternative policies from decriminalization to legalization. As a journalist who has interviewed a myriad of officials directly involved in the drug war he told the panel that generally they believed that the premise that we are losing the drug war is erroneous.
“It is like saying that because there are still thefts and rapes, the war on crime has been lost and therefore it is hopeless,” said Burnett. These officials maintain that these law enforcement efforts have kept countless quantities of drugs from ever making it to the streets.
Nadelmann responded that although criminalization has deterring benefits, the cost to society in terms of dollars and lives far out weigh the advantages. The black market has fueled the violence in Juarez, he said, the site of more than 3,000 drug related killings in the last two years.
Martin said people think it is the drugs that caused these problems, but he thinks it is the fight over drug trafficking caused by prohibition that did this. “From a prosecutors stand point it doesn’t make sense to do something over and over and over again,“ said Jose Rodriguez, county attorney for El Paso County who prosecutes juvenile crime.
He said the cost of incarceration and prosecution clogs up the judicial system, and the resources that should go to intervention and prevention. He also pointed out inconsistencies of what he called an unfair system. “When you can be prosecuted for a small amount of marijuana but not for being involved in college binge drinking that leads to death,” said Rodriguez, “It is a wrong message to send.”
Amber Langston, outreach director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, also compares marijuana to alcohol in terms of the effects of the policy. “We don’t put drinkers in prison because we realize that it is futile,” Langston said. “It is not going to help them, or solve any problems.”
Legalizing marijuana is an action that the mayor of Ciudad Juarez is considering as a viable option. Martin holds that legalizing marijuana in Texas would diminish the power of the drug cartels. Reduction measures such as programs like heroine maintenance and development of chemicals for treating the effects and desire of cocaine abuse are currently being developed and should be part of the solution, she said.
Taxation would create the revenue to fund these programs. “But, the idea is to reduce the black market, to discourage consumption, like what we are doing with tobacco,” said Nadelmann. He also praised the efforts of El Pasoans who, he said, have spoken courageously on the topic and provided a role model for democracy.
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