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Tilting at drugmules

Written By: - Date published: 12:00 pm, April 20th, 2011 - 33 comments
Categories: crime, drugs, law, police, Politics, prisons - Tags:

Rex Widerstrom has been a commentator and occassional guest poster here for a while. He has a unique point of view on the political process and its place in society that you can also see at his blog Shift Focus. In this guest post he looks at the never ending “War on Drugs”.

Aldonza: Why do you do these things?
Don Quixote: What things?
Aldonza: These ridiculous… the things you do!
Don Quixote: Whether I win or lose does not matter.
Aldonza: What does?
Don Quixote: Only that I follow the quest.

Following a noble quest has that affect on a person; the desired outcome, no matter how unlikely it is to occur, becomes the sole focus. There is a great deal to be admired in the person who sets themselves a goal and pursues it single-mindedly especially if they desire, as did the man of La Mancha, to right an unrightable wrong.

But what if that noble quest causes more harm through its continuance than through its abandonment?

That’s what’s happening with the 30-year response to addiction and its criminal outcomes known as the “War on Drugs”. Like Don Quixote, policymakers are fighting the unbeatable foe.

As the Washington Post reported recently, Mexican drug cartels are now targeting children.

The Child Rights Network in Mexico estimates that 994 people younger than 18 were killed in drug-related violence between late 2006 and late 2010, though they admit that’s likely a conservative figure.

In February, assassins went hunting for a Ciudad Juarez man, but the intended target wasn’t home, so they killed his three daughters instead, ages 12, 14 and 15.

In March, a young woman was bound and gagged, shot and left in a car in Acapulco. Her 4-year-old daughter lay slumped beside her, killed with a single bullet to her chest. She was the fifth child killed in drug violence in the resort city in one bloody week.

“They kill children on purpose,” said Marcela Turati, author of “Crossfire,” a new book on the killings of civilians in Mexico’s drug war. “In Juarez, they told a 7-year-old boy to run, and shot his father. Then they shot the little boy.”

Those accounts cannot fail to offend the sensibilities of anyone, regardless of their stance on drugs. But what of this passage?

“It may seem contradictory, but the unfortunate level of violence is a sign of success in the fight against drugs,” said Michele Leonhart, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration [my emphasis].

Let’s parse that carefully. Asked for comment on the horrific murder of innocents in the “war on drugs”, the head of the DEA hails it as a “sign of success”.

Can there be any doubt that the “war” is already lost and, to switch from a musical film metaphor to dramatic film one, the generals are in their bunker, the only ones unaware of The Downfall.

There’s a regular moral panic about drugs in New Zealand. The latest being “Kronic”, apparently a New Zealand export, as the panic has spread to Western Australia, where miners are apparently using it to thwart their rigid drug testing regime.

While being bored rigid by a stoner at a flatwarming is hardly a pleasant experience, it pales beside hearing the guy next to you setting the explosives saying “Whoa man… the colours are amazing…”

All joking aside, I don’t like drugs. If I could wave a wand and eliminate them from the world, I would. And not just the ones classed as illegal, either. I’ve seen the harm those can do, but I’ve also witnessed the destruction wrought by someone over-prescribed benzodiazepines, for instance.

Alas magic is outside of my capabilities – thus saving you a laboured Harry Potter metaphor – but I can suggest that policymakers would be well-served by listening to a man who has worked some televisual magic – David Simon, creator of the acclaimed series “The Wire” about the narcotics officers and drug gangs in Baltimore.

Simon had more than twelve years as a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, wrote a book which was turned into the NBC television series “Homicide”, and then teamed up with Ed Burns, a real-life cop turned teacher, to create “The Wire”.

In an interview with Bill Moyers recently, here’s what Simon had to say:

Bill Moyers: Why don’t the policies change?

David Simon: Because there’s no political capital in it. There really isn’t. The fear of being called soft on crime, soft on drugs. The paranoia that’s been induced. Listen, if you could be draconian and reduce drug use by locking people up, you might have an argument. But we are the jailing-est country on the planet right now. Two million people in prison. We’re locking up less-violent people. More of them. The drugs are purer. They haven’t closed down a single drug corner that I know of in Baltimore for any length of time. It’s not working. And by the way, this is not a Republican-Democrat thing, because a lot of the most draconian stuff came out of the Clinton administration, this guy trying to maneuver to the center in order not to be perceived as leftist by a Republican Congress.

Bill Moyers: Mandatory sentences, three strikes—

David Simon: Loss of parole. And again, not merely for violent offenders, because again, the rate of violent offenders is going down. Federal prisons are full of people who got caught muling drugs and got tarred with the whole amount of the drugs. It’s not what you were involved in or what you profited from. It’s what they can tar you with…

Bill Moyers: After all these years do you have the answer?

David Simon: Oh, I would decriminalize drugs in a heartbeat. I would put all the interdiction money, all the incarceration money, all the enforcement money, all of the pretrial, all the prep, all of that cash, I would hurl it as fast as I could into drug treatment and job training and jobs programs. I would rather turn these neighborhoods inward with jobs programs. Even if it was the urban equivalent of FDR’s CCC—the Civilian Conservation Corps—if it was New Deal–type logic, it would be doing less damage than creating a war syndrome. The drug war is war on the underclass now. That’s all it is. It has no other meaning.

I guess it’s easy to dismiss Simon as a left-leaning, liberal hand-wringer. He’s in television, after all. But his views are informed by two decades of reporting the drug war in a city which has to be counted as the front lines. But he’s informed by the opinions of Ed Burns, who spent seven years as a teacher in the inner city, after serving 20 years with the Baltimore police.

And for what it’s worth, it accords with my own perspective as someone who first started working with people who were addicted in the 1980s and now sees it amongst 80 percent of the prison population; who sees people released from prison to their families, their friends and their lives on the condition they return clear tests for drugs, and who simply can’t. Even with children and partners and mothers and fathers who love them and want them to stay out of jail, they tell me they’re so desperate it’ll be their drug dealer who collects them when they’re released on parole so they can shoot up in the carpark. Some do make it, but those who have no one, other than other addicts, waiting for them on the outside have no chance.

Until we decriminalise the possession and use (not manufacture and sale) of drugs; till we realise that it’d be healthier to prescribe heroin, or morphine, than the destructive, debilitating soup that is morphine methadone; till we intervene early in the life of anyone addicted, with a finely tuned mixture of incentives and disincentives, we are, like Don Quixote, marching innocents into hell for a heavenly cause.

33 comments on “Tilting at drugmules ”

  1. Too true! The drug war is just a ruse to criminalise and militarise the class war against workers who if they were not strung out on or dealing in drugs would blow away this rotten system in a heartbeat.

  2. PeteG 2

    No chance. We’ll just keep building temporary druggie containment buildings. Puts them out of sight for a while. Out of mind? Out of mind?

  3. DeeDub 3

    till we realise that it’d be healthier to prescribe heroin, or morphine, than the destructive, debilitating soup that is morphine; 

    Um, I’m assuming you actually mean the ‘debilitating soup that is’ Methadone, Rex?

  4. xy 4

    Posted on 4/20, heh.

  5. MikeE 5

    Finally a post on here that this “dirty right winger” can agree with. 

    The war on drugs causes far more harm than drugs themselves. Heck, Crack cocaine and P wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t prohibition, just like moonshine etc.

    • Deadly_NZ 5.1

      And how much would be saved just by decriminalising marijuana Millions and Millions, and thats just the pot.

  6. Murray 6

    What is the difference between prescribing morphine or heroin to prescribing methadone.  They are all opiates.  Methadone has the obvious advantages of being active orally and needs only to be taken once a day.  Personally I have witnessed the methadone program as a pharmacist and I think it is one of the biggest wastes of taxpayer money.  Very few of the 60 odd junkies I dealt with did little to improve their circumstances despite receiving their drugs for free.

    • You’ve gone some way to answering your own question Murray – it doesn’t work very well, whereas trials of medical heroin show it has much better results. Partly that’s not the fault of the drug – people are simply put “on the ‘done” and left there, with no real attempt to ge them off.

      I’m as disgusted as you clearly were to see people in their 50s and 60s shuffling toward the pharmacist’s counter for another dose of the medication that some have been on for decades. 

      But the drug also rots teeth and causes gum disease (partly, I believe, because it has to be swallowed in such strong syrup to disguise the awful taste) and has a relative risk (RR) of fatal accidental drug toxicity for patients in the first two weeks of methadone maintenance 6.7 times that of heroin addicts not in treatment.

    • Mac1 6.2

      Murray, what was the rationale for the methadone programme? To allow addicts a ‘safe’ alternative, or allow addicts a way of avoiding the criminal associations which illegal drugs brings, or to avoid the criminal behaviour which addiction brings with the exorbitant costs of purchasing drugs or to allow them to improve their circumstances?

      A local man was convicted for a night time hold-up because he was being heavied for drug debts, so he said. Methadone takes care of some of the junkies, but those addicted to other drugs miss out. The post does not mention alternatives to the non-opiates does it?

      Further, and one which sticks out for me as a reason not to allow unfettered access is the absolute insanity that some drugs bring, with attendant harm to the user and the community. The other reason, of course, is where the young, the mentally impaired and the truly addicted would sit with legal access to drugs. I would need to be convinced, MikeE, that P and crack cocaine would not exist without prohibition. Alcohol was prohibited but existed in large use before and after prohibition. What is different with P and crack?

      • Mac1, can’t you see the dichotomy between your two statements, both correct:

        a reason not to allow unfettered access is the absolute insanity that some drugs bring


        Alcohol was prohibited but existed in large use before and after prohibition

        Yes, drugs cause all sorts of societal problems. They are not good things. We’d be better off if they didn’t exist. But prohibiting them will not stop their use it will only make it dirty and dangerous.

        Prohibition did not wipe out alcohol, nor will it wipe out drugs. But if we provide safe, clean drugs to registered users in a controlled environment we’re going to minimise the damage (to the user, and the damage they’d otherwise do to society trying to feed their habit).

        I mention methadone because that’s the only drug available in many places to treat addiction to any drug whatsoever… so if you’re addicted to speed you find yourself being treated with an opiate!

        There are of course legal and same amphetamines or ampheamine-like drugs but governments are reluctant to hand them to addicts because, as you say, the effects are more unpredictable. But that just keeps the speed junkies out of the treatment programs.

        • Mac1

          Yes, Rex. I see the dichotomy. For me the question seems to be, would it be worse to continue with prohibition or to manage those who are addicts or potentially are( for my understanding is that potential addicts will always be with us) with as you say ‘safe, clean drugs to registered users in a controlled environment.’ I am open to the latter. My concern is with those who through youth, mental instability or sheer anti-social behaviour use dangerous, harmful drugs outside those parameters imposed by society (i.e. use these drugs in this amount and register yourself as a user and therefore stay away from criminality or harm to others because self-harm is going to happen.)

          I am not unsympathetic but fear the consequences of getting it wrong and therefore worse especially since it would take time for the education, training and job creation to take effect.

          I am concerned about the implementation practicality of it all, or is what is happening now under prohibition, methadone and needle exchange no worse or close to it?

          • Rex Widerstrom

            My concern is with those who … use dangerous, harmful drugs outside those parameters

            In theory (and we can really only talk in theory because it’s rarely tried in practice and usually not for long enough to properly evaluate) such people would be hard pressed to find a supply of the harder drugs.

            Sure, the occasional marijuana plantation will still spring up. But why run the risk of transporting heroin into the country, or running a meth lab, when the bottom has fallen out of the price now it’s available on prescription?

            Needle exchange programs have had a mesurable positive effect on disease transmission rates but they were never designed (and couldn’t be) to reduce usage rates.

            Methadone is sickening, ineffective and dangerous but nonetheless it has been shown to work in keeping a cohort of addicts from committing crimes.

            On that basis, I think it’s worth testing the theory. It can’t be any worse than what we have, specially if, as David Simon says, we “put all the interdiction money, all the incarceration money, all the enforcement money, all of the pretrial, all the prep, all of that cash, I would hurl it as fast as I could into drug treatment and job training and jobs programs”.

    • MrSmith 6.3

      Murray respectfully, the difference is that they weren’t burgling your home at the time you where supplying them with there fix, so saving you money really.

      Yes you could argue you have insurance, but the more burglary the higher the premiums, and if they get caught burgling your home the the tax payer would be forking out (I dont know $70,000 maybe) to put them up per year.

      Murray Rex has the answer, I think we just need to try it.

  7. ianmac 7

    The police are proud of their time and energy in tracking the growing of marijuana. The do the bidding of the law and do it well. But what a terrible waste of time and money. And will they beat the production and sale of the drug? No way. All they succeed in doing is increase the street value of drugs.
    Wasn’t the USA woman recently talking about her switch from leading the war on drugs USA, to the opposite view that the war was causing more harm than good. Who was she?

    Because there’s no political capital in it. There really isn’t. The fear of being called soft on crime, soft on drugs. The paranoia that’s been induced.

    How true here in NZ about Crime in general.

  8. M 8


    Wow, this is great – people need treatment for drug addiction not imprisonment like that which occurs in Scandinavia, but then that would take money and as this government is concerned with cutting to the bone. I think the problems with drugs will increase and therefore incarceration rates.

    I know I shouldn’t but when I see police bagging up or burning weed I smirk and think they’d be better to legalise it and reduce the crime and perhaps glamour surrounding this drug. I have read that in 30s in the US the fear of weed was ramped up by the authorities and the hemp rope industry largely destroyed to make way for petrochemical rope manufacture. Co-incidence?

    Mike Ruppert’s take on the drug problem is that the CIA allows the proliferation of drugs in the USA because Wall Street would self-destruct if it wasn’t being propped up by drug money filtering through.

    I know a number of people who smoke out but are not stoners so wouldn’t it be better to let them buzz out at the end of the day and take a cut through tax to help those not so able to resist being stoners?

    • Thanks, M… I’ll try to answer the main points in your response…

      that would take money and as this government is concerned with cutting to the bone 

      I haven’t time to find out how much money is wasted on drugs by government. All the police time and reource; the prosecutors; the courts; Legal Aid; probation and prisoner officers’ time and so on. But I imagine we could probably save, say, half of it, spend the other half on drug treatment, and still come out ahead.

      There’s no even an economic argument to be made against such a policy.. leastways if there is, I’ve never heard anyone make one. No, I think the stance of the authorities toward drugs stem from the same belief in teir own moral superiority that sees them unnecessarily interfering in other aspects of our lives.

      I know a number of people who smoke out but are not stoners so wouldn’t it be better to let them buzz out at the end of the day

      Sort of… I know a lot of people who you perhaps woudn’t call stoners (they don’t light up a bong first thing) but they do tend to use every night and over time I’m sure I can see them becoming more dull and slow-witted. I can also see their use gradually increasing. That said, if they keep it to their own home I’d just rather they not do it… I’m not in favour of kicking their door down and raiding them.

      I’m in favour of decriminalisation, not legalisation. So if someone is found in public with a quantity of drugs for personal use (even if that’s “only” marijuana) they get sent to a compulsory drug education class that tells them the truth about the drug they’re using.

      Coming up against the law can provide opportunities to educate and change behaviour positively, because society suddenly has possession of a carrot and  a stick.

      Court should be a place where people get together to solve problems not punish, other than for crimes of violence or persistent non-violent offenders. Because courts have the power to punish, that can be used to encourage recalcitrant participants to do the right things. It’s a unique opportunity, and one we currently waste.

      • Adele 8.1.1

        Teenaa koe, Rex

        Coming up against the law can provide opportunities to educate and change behaviour positively, because society suddenly has possession of a carrot and  a stick.

        If you’re a 5 year old caught smoking pot than maybe I would agree with the above statement.  But otherwise, it reeks of paternalistic poop.

        This is the 21st century where people have access to all sorts of information by all sorts of means – even stoners have the capacity to google stuff  –  eventually.  

        Approach any reasonable person, stoned or not, with that carrot analogy and most likely you will need that stick to fend them off from shoving said carrot in your annus horribilis.   

        • Rex Widerstrom

          I don’t deny that it is paternalistic. But we’re talking about people who aren’t exactly making adult choices.

          Remember I’m talking about people who’ve come up against the criminal justice system for some reason. In the scenario I envisage that’s not someone growing a couple of plants and having a smoke at home or at a mate’s on the weekend – that would no longer be something with which the Police need concern themselves.

          It’s someone who, say, is caught driving under the influence or wandering about with a half ounce in their pocket and/or sparking up blatantly in the street. Or perhaps someone who’s committed a nuisance offence and advances “I was stoned” as a mitigating factor just as they do now with “I was drunk”. In short, dickheads.

          It’s illegal (certainly in Australia and I assume NZ) to be street drinking. And if you advance intoxication as mitigation and assuming you get a Magistrate who’s prepared to cut you some slack, you’ll likely get rehab as part of a suspended sentence.

          We can’t go on letting people behave like idiots. Well we can, but I don’t see why we should, given the harm some of them do. If we’re going to mediate their behaviour we can punish them or we can educate them and ask them nicely to moderate it themselves.

          And frankly, if I were a Magistrate and gave someone such an opportunity and they treated the carrot by telling me not to be paternalistic, I’d have no hesitation in bringing out the stick.

      • Rich 8.1.2

        tells them the truth about the drug they’re using

        But what if the truth is that their drug use is completely harmless?

        There are hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who live totally functional and productive lives whilst using drugs on an occasional or regular basis. Scientists, professionals, doctors, teachers, even government policy advisers.

        The reason they don’t get busted much is that they’re white, a bit older and respectable looking. It’s a lot more difficult for a young Maori kid to be acceptably “discreet”.

        • Rex Widerstrom

          Yeah, harmless till it’s not harmless any more. The “54 year old businessman” referred to in this story was middle aged, reasonably wealthy, and white. He was also a highly respected lawyer.

          He was one of several people to die from a “lethal” batch of heroin. No doubt, as someone of above average intelligence, he believed it couldn’t happen to him. But it did.

          The harm isn’t just from being busted. Of course making heroin legally available would reduce drug deaths. But ironically, I imagine it’d be the white, middle aged, respectable users who wouldn’t want to register as an addict because of the effect it might have on their professional and personal lives.

    • Deadly_NZ 8.2

      And DuPont in the US was involved as well couldn’t have hemp material getting the way of nice shiny static laden nylon.

  9. Drakula 9

    War is fascism; so is the war on drugs I think that the most pragmatic thing to do hear is offer addicts a first program to get them off drugs.

    Failing that there is really nothing anyone can do but to give the hardened addicts their drugs. that will put the supply out of criminal market.

    Where the authorities need to get tough is isolating children from dysfunctional families even to the point of moving children to different locations and giving them different identities.

    Blanket ban on programs that tend to sensationalize drugs; that was the problem in my generation in the 70’s and 80’s , it was cool to blow a joint or have a sniff of coke but the youth need to see the real picture.

    Our youth need to be shown worthwhile and enjoyable alternatives, like cultivating an appreciation of literature, arts, hobbies, vocations and sports.

    When people are happy and busy the temptation will simply not be there, will it?

  10. millsy 10

    Quite frankly if people want to grow some weed and have a few cones with their mates on a saturday night (provided they are over 18 of course), then I dont think that it is the business of the police or the state.

  11. M 11

    “Put on your Depends and get outta Dodge.”
    “Global banking liquidity funded by the Mexican drug cartels.” around the five-minute mark:

  12. Uroskin 12

    The War on Drugs has a powerful array of backers who will not easily give up:
    – The wowsers, who want alcohol and tobacco added to the prohibition;
    – The police, who would resent a threat to their anti-drug campaign funding (and would have to start chasing real criminals instead);
    – The politicians, who are too weak to resist a perceived backlash from voters for being soft on drugs;
    – The gangs, who don’t want lower returns on trading that legalisation would bring. Illegality acts as a tax on consumers but the tax goes into the gangs’ coffers;
    – The brewers, who don’t want legal competition on their drug patch.

  13. Skinflute 13

    Don’t forget about the pharmaceutical companies who would loose billions in revenue if marijuana could be used to treat the 300+ conditions it is known to treat that we now use prescription drugs for.
    and don’t forget about the $70000 (?) we spend per year incarcerating people in prison for non-violent drug related offences.
    the line we draw in society between good drugs and bad drugs is completely arbitrary and rediculous especially when one considers the increasing addiction to prescription drugs we’re experiencing in western society.
    I enjoy the odd joint. why is this? price. i can spend $20 on a tinny and entertain myself and a couple of mates for a whole weekend. Good luck getting that much entertainment for $20 anywhere else in auckland. just your fuel costs to get somewhere is going to be more than that let alone entry fee, you probably need to eat and drink while your out (user pays society for the win). is it really that harmfull to society if a group of young males goes to a park gets stoned and throws a ball around for a couple of hours? i can certainly conjure up some worse scenarios involving alcohol and these are most often played out on friday and saturday night

  14. Skinflute – that’s what worries them, harmless drugs that allow too many people to enjoy the park and not be team players in the workplace.
    They want drugs that knock us out or make us hyped (too much of each and we get taken out as collateral anyway).
    The drugs are tailored to keep us chained to the workstation like the wage slaves we are.
    We sort the drug question when we sort the class question.
    Make revolution your personal high.

  15. Skinflute 15

    the whole thing is just so damn stupid.

    the idea that you can say “this is bad, don’t do it” and expect it to have the desired effect. I always thought a really stinky fart is the best analogy. You drop a stinky as fart and warn the people around you, the first thing they do is take a wiff and then tell you that you are correct and it is a horrendously stinky fart. the fact that alcohol is illegal when the harm is causes is on par with crack cocaine and methamphetamine and yet we consider it acceptable in our society.

  16. portia 16

    It’s even more senseless.
    10 years ago Portugal became the only EU member state to  decriminalise drugs. The drug war hawks predicted chaos and pandemonium, huge increases in drug addiction and related societal disorders.
    None of that happened. In fact, the opposite happened. As Glenn Greenwald documented in his 2009 report (available from the Cato Institute), drug use among teenagers decreased over that time frame, even cannabis, and even controlling statistically for other possible causes.  Chicken Little was wrong; the sky did not fall.
    Here’s Glenn’s post talking about it, which contains a link to the report at Cato’s site.

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