Sunday, September 27, 2009

Boone: A 40-year (failed) War on Drugs

The Rio Grande Guardian

EL PASO, Sept. 27 - Earlier this week, attendees at the bi-national “U.S. War on Drugs” conference in El Paso heard 30-plus speakers address the 40-year failure of the U.S. ‘war on drugs’ policy and why it will never succeed.

All agreed the term ‘war’ should no longer be used, instead emphasis should be placed on better ways to disband cartels, stop the rampant use of drugs in the U.S. and help Mexico rebuild its society, torn asunder by the violence.

From across U.S. and Mexico, speakers representing the press, academic scholars from variety of disciplines, elected officials, former law enforcement officers, social service providers, community leaders, and even a conservative Republican judge, agreed that a thoughtful national dialogue must occur.

The conference grew from a resolution by Councilman Beto O’Rourke, which the El Paso City Council unanimously passed several months ago, calling for such a dialogue (including discussion of repealing the prohibition of some banned substances). While Mayor John Cook initially vetoed the resolution, he gave the welcoming address on Monday and his office provided staging support. Ironically, Rice University Professor, Dr. William Martin, related that the 1914 Act prohibiting the possession/use of marijuana and other drugs, grew from El Paso’s frustration with the behavior of laborers who’d brought their favorite ‘relaxation’ medication from Mexico.

Six panels presented topics ranging from “History, Successes and Failures” in the ‘drug war’ to the effects that violence has on communities in the U.S. and Mexico to social consequences and finally alternative strategies and policy proposals. There was general agreement that incarceration must be replaced by intervention and treatment that will lead to curing the ‘recovery’ and re-entrance into society as a worthwhile person. Unfortunately, government has provided far greater funding for incarceration than for programs to rehabilitate users; almost 50 percent of those currently in prison in the U.S. are there for drug use or possession.

The Honorable Judge John P. Gray of California has discussed the failure of the drug policy publicly since 1992 on hundreds of national television and radio programs; his remarks, along with an emotion-charged speech by the former mayor of Medellin, Columbia, Dr. Sergio Fajardo, to more than 2,000 Juarez citizens (and many conference attendees) in Juarez on Monday evening, were the keynotes of the conference.

During Dr. Fajardo’s administration, which followed the cessation of the cartel wars in Medellin, state-of-the-art schools, library parks, affordable housing, and other amenities were built in Medellin’s poorest neighborhoods to discourage the return of crime. Entitled, “From Fear to Hope,” his address laid before the citizens of Juarez a blueprint for reviving and saving a city. Juarez already has instituted “El Pacto” an agreement between the ciudadania and gobierno (citizens and government) with specific objectives that these two groups owe each other, such as respect for the law and transparency in government.

Tuesday’s closing panel challenged attendees to initiate more dialogues to evaluate the ‘war on drugs’ as this must occur to continue to build momentum for policy change. We, who live on the Border, are the front line and should assume responsibility for presenting viable solutions to Washington to aid our communities in overcoming drug usage and violence.

While checking out at the hotel, I told the desk clerk, a young El Paso native, about Dr. Fajardo’s remarks and how everyone marveled at the successes in Medellin. He hesitated and then said, “Success was possible because we weren’t just across the river.” The story of the failed U.S. drug policy in ten short words.

Sarah Boone is a former banker, a business leader and commentator on border life. She lives in Del Rio, Texas.


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