Decriminalization pushed as War on Drugs turns 40

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It's been 40 years since President Nixon used the term war on drugs to describe the U.S. enforcement policy. Four decades later we're coping with the rise of well-armed, powerful drug cartels, an explosion in drug related killings in Mexico and prisons crowded with drug offenders in the U.S.

Against this backdrop hundreds of people from across the country and the border gathered in El Paso-Juarez to evaluate the policy and consider alternatives. The 2-day "Global Public Policy Forum on the War on Drugs" hosted by UT El Paso attracted an interesting cross-section of participants: academic researchers, a former federal agent, a trial judge and the former mayor of Medellin.

Both the Drug Czar and Border Czar were invited but declined at the last minute . Much of the discussion was among people who agreed the current policy is not working. They had differing views on the alternative. But several of the panelists seemed to favor decriminalizing some drugs.

Anthony Placido who leads the DEA's intelligence program offered an opposing view. ""When you start walking down this line, it becomes very difficult when you realize it's as expensive to regulate, if not more so, than it is to enforce the laws, and ultimately, we the taxpayers end up underwriting this whole thing. "

But retired federal agent Terry Nelson on another panel promoted legalization as a long term solution, " legalized, regulation and control of all narcotics and an education program to teach people not to start." He points to anti-smoking campaigns as the model. Smoking rates have dropped drastically in one generation.

For more than 30 years Nelson worked to stop drug smugglers both in this country and abroad. Now as a member of LEAP, Law Enforcement against Prohibition, he doubts enforcement is the answer, " I try not to smirk when I hear more boots on the ground, more law enforcement or we're going to crackdown on crime. I've heard that so many times over the last 40 years. The crime will stop in Juarez when a new drug cartel is in charge of the whole thing."

The cartel turf war in Juarez has claimed more than 1700 lives so far this year and more than 200 just this month. The panel looking at the impact on local communities included some solid research and sobering stories. Victor Quintana, a researcher and professor with the Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez talked about an attack on the small Chihuahua community Madera on March 22. A group of gunmen killed many of the men. Others fled and are too afraid to return home.

Dr. David Shirk, the director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego explored the explosion in drug-related murders in Mexico with data gathered for the Justice in Mexico Project.

In an interview after the panel he told me, "It's not just that there are these thugs running around. It's getting down to the community level and the family level and seeing the disastrous effects of this violence for everyday people."

The former mayor of Medellin, Colombia Sergio Fajardo has seen those disastrous effects first hand in his city. A notorious drug cartel by the same name was behind rampant violence in the 90s. Fajardo, took the stage in a packed hall and much like a preacher giving a sermon, gave a talk titled "Del Miedo a la Esperanza," From fear to Hope.

Now a candidate for President of Colombia, he said by creating educational opportunities he helped reduce rampant drug violence. He showed several slides with gleaming buildings, schools, libraries, an aquarium, science center-- all build in the poorest neighborhoods. "La Esperanza se construye. Y ustedes Juarenzes lo pueden construir." Hope is built and you, Juarez residents, can build it.

Nearly every seat in the convention center was filled and at the end Fajardo got a standing ovation. As he left the stage people flocked to him, shaking his hand, snapping pictures, all desperate for a glimmer of hope that their nightmare might end too. In this city on the frontline, 40 years later the war on drugs is more than a metaphor in Mexico.