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Chronicle of Higher Education: 19th-Century Lessons for Today’s Drug-War Policies

Read the entire article by Brian DeLay here. Some excerpts:

— This spring in El Paso, after a talk I gave on the Indian raids and the U.S.-Mexican War, a man in the back row raised his hand. “Do you see any similarities between the borderland violence you’ve just described for the 1830s and 1840s and the current drug war?” The energy in the room changed immediately.

— The obvious alternative to enforcement is to reconsider law. Here we come to a last, instructive difference between the two borderland wars. The market exchanges that helped stoke Indian raids in the 19th century were nominally illicit under Mexican and, later, U.S. law. However, for most of the 19th century, the relative weakness of the American and Mexican governments in the vast borderland region made it difficult to exert any control over markets. More fundamentally, the key commodities in the trade—horses and mules—were ubiquitous and essential to everyday life. The government could no more outlaw those goods than it could pants or copper pots. That fact, combined with the feeble reach of national power, made it virtually impossible to police Indian raids and the exchanges they enabled. Hence changes in the law concerning commodities could have done little to improve borderland security until late in the century.

— The drug war is born of law. According to estimates by the United Nations, roughly one in 20 adults worldwide uses illegal drugs—and nowhere more than in the United States, where the vast market for illicit drugs remains immensely profitable. Prohibition has failed. What it has done is deny drug producers, distributors, and consumers access to the protections and conveniences of the legal marketplace. One result has been phenomenal profits for those entities shrewd, organized, and ruthless enough to overcome obstacles and satisfy demand. War has been another result—war against the state and war against the competition. And, as with any war, the miseries are not confined to the protagonists.

— If I were given another chance to answer that question in El Paso, I’d say that the lesson I take away from the 19th-century parallel is that we ought to look to state and national legislatures (law), rather than the executive branch (enforcement), if we want to bring an end to the drug war in the borderlands. There is a crooked but unbroken line between our drug laws and the sorrows that have engulfed Juárez and so much of Mexico, to say nothing of our own shameful, burgeoning prison system. It is a moral as well as a practical imperative that we change our laws, despite the pain that change will bring. Even paired with comprehensive regulation and rigorous, well-financed drug-treatment programs, legalization would indisputably generate complex ethical, social, medical, and legal problems. But given the vast costs of the war on drugs and the heartbreak and trauma now stalking the borderlands, does anyone really believe those problems would be worse?

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Written by newspapertreeelpaso

July 31, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. The astute person on the back row (or close to the back row) asking the question was El Paso angling consultant and attorney Sam Moore. The wording of question and response may not have been EXACTLY as Prof. De Lay remembers, but the question certainly was thought-provoking and a highlight of the event.

    Claudia Rivers

    July 31, 2009 at 4:49 pm


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