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The Never-Ending Drug War

Drug WarThe drug war is back in the news with two major events, one here in the United States and the other in Mexico. Both events point to the utter futility and destructiveness of this decades-long disaster.

The New York Times reports that Attorney General Eric Holder will announce a new policy to relieve overcrowded prisons. Holder is instructing U.S. Attorneys to not mention the exact quantity of drugs when charging people with low-level drug offenses, which apparently will enable federal judges to circumvent the law regarding mandatory minimum sentences. In a line that could easily have been copied from drug-war critics for the past several decades, Holder declared,

Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason…. Widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable. It imposes a significant economic burden — totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone — and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.

One would think that the better approach would be for Holder and President Obama to go to Congress and seek a repeal of the mandatory-minimum law rather than engage in legal trickery designed to avoid the application of the law. But in an era in which the executive branch is the law and makes the law, it’s not surprising that Holder would adopt such a policy.

But I’ve got a better idea: How about just ending the drug war entirely by ending drug prohibition, just as earlier Americans ended alcohol Prohibition when that social experiment resulted in the same types of horrific consequences as drug prohibition?

Consider two benefits of drug legalization: No more overcrowding drug-war dockets in federal and state courts and no more overcrowded prisons owing to drug-war prisoners. In fact, no more drug lords, drug cartels, and drug gangs because drug legalization would put them all out of business immediately, just as ending alcohol Prohibition put all the Al Capone types out of business immediately.

That brings us to the second major drug-war event in the news — the release from a Mexican prison of a man named Rafael Caro Quintero. Caro Quintero, who was a member of one of biggest drug gangs at that time, was convicted in 1985 of the torture and murder of an American DEA agent named Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, who was working undercover in Mexico. Camarena was kidnapped and brutally tortured for several days before finally being killed.

Mexico captured Caro Quintero and sentenced him to 40 years in jail. A few days ago, a Mexican court released him early from prison after he had served 28 years, holding that it had been an error to have prosecuted him in a Mexican federal court rather than in state court.

Needless to say, U.S. officials are furious. Joe Gutensohn, president of the U.S. Association of Former Federal Narcotics Agents, declared “The retired agents that I have spoken to are extremely upset.”

The episode is a testament to the horrors of the drug war. First of all, the drug war gave rise to the drug gangs and drug cartels. If drugs hadn’t been made illegal, they would have been sold by regular businesses rather than by violent drug gangs. Thus, Caro Quintero and the other gang members would not have been involved in the drug business, which in turn means that there wouldn’t have been a DEA. Camarena would not have been in Mexico fighting the drug lords. He would have been here at home working a regular job.

And notice something important here: This took place almost 30 years ago! What good did it do to bust Caro Quintero and give him that 40-year jail sentence? It did no good at all. The drug war just kept going and going. Through the decades, people would quickly forget the last big drug lord who was busted, especially amidst the fanfare of the next big drug bust.

What did Camarena die for? He died for nothing. Although he is celebrated as a hero here in the United States, his death had no meaning whatsoever. The drug war just kept going, with new drug busts and new deaths and, as Holder suggests, ever-increasing overcrowded prisons and ruined lives.

The only people who have benefited from the drug war are (1) the drug dealers who have become wealthy and who have succeeded in staying alive and out of prison and (2) DEA agents who are now retired on fat federal pensions, including those in the U.S. Association of Former Federal Narcotics Agents, and (3) all the other government officials, including law-enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, and clerks who benefit, one way or another, from the drug war.

There is only one solution to all this needless death, destruction, and damage, and it lies not in clever attempts by the Justice Department to circumvent the drug laws. The only solution is to put both the drug dealers and the DEA permanently out of business immediately. That means drug legalization.

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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