Thursday 16 August 2012

Death on a High

I was asked recently if I thought drugs should be banned.  The reference, in fact, was to substances that are already banned.  For me the answer is quite straightforward: whatever the moral issues are the banning of substances like heroin and cocaine has had disastrous consequences, even more disastrous than America’s flirtation with the prohibition of alcohol.

I had the example of Mexico in mind, a place where the so-called war on drugs has turned into a war, more barbarous and more savage than many more conventional conflicts.  The statistics are stunning.  To date more than 50,000 people have died in a mere six year period, ever since Felipe Calderon ascended to the presidency in December, 2006, with a promise to stamp out a perceived evil.  He made it worse.  At least 12000 children have lost one or both parents.  Several hundred thousand people have been forced to flee their homes, refugees in their own country, victims of a war in the middle of peace.

It’s not just the killing that’s shocking; it’s the ghastly nature of so many of the deaths.  Beheadings with chainsaws are now commonplace.  This is not just a war between the state and organised crime; it’s also a war within a war, with rival cartels involved in murderous vendettas against each other.  A lot of Americans seem unconscious of the sheer enormity of the problem south of the Rio Grande, a greater threat to national security and well-being than anything that might be happening in distant Afghanistan.

North America is the key, a huge and lucrative market that has acted as a spur to the drugs industry in Central and South America.  There is an obvious and terrible contradiction here.  There would seem to be no connection at all between the so-called flower children and peaceniks of the 1960s and 1970s, high on artificial highs, and grisly mass decapitations in Mexico, but the second is the corollary of the first.  Peace and love equals death and blood; it really is as simple as that.

For the outset the American government’s approach was wholly one-sided.  So far as successive administrations were concerned it was all a supply-side problem.  Deal with the producers, the reasoning went, then you deal with the problems as a whole.  So, in 1971, President Richard Nixon managed to persuade the Turkish government to clamp down on illegal opium production.  All that happened was that Mexican production was boosted still further. 

In 1976 the US Air force sprayed poison on hundreds of square miles of Mexican marijuana fields.  Production simply switched to Colombia, giving the infant drug cartels in that country a massive boost.  When President Regan tried to end the importation of Colombian drugs through Florida in 1982, the cartels simply re-routed their produce through Mexico.  As immigration and drug enforcement agencies have discovered, the 2000 mile border between Mexico and the United States is almost impossible to police adequately. 

The problem gets worse by the day, aided by the fact that many ordinary Mexicans do not perceive the violent drug gangs as criminals but as part of the country’s long anti-state, Robin Hood or Zapata tradition.  For many Mexicans, mired in poverty, the government itself has long been suspect, not an agency for reform and improvement but a source of graft and corruption.  If the drug gangs are violent the state has often been even more violent. 

Every year Mexico celebrates death in the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, a Catholic holiday with Aztec roots.  But those grinning sugar skulls hide a grimmer reality.  Death is not confined to a single day.  Rather in Santa Muerte, Saint Death, the patron saint of the drug gangs, it is an immediate and ‘living’ presence, if such a paradox makes sense.  Santa Muerte has accompanied the heroin and cocaine across the Rio Grande.  She is making a home in the North, the avatar of an unacknowledged insurgency. 

It will require a lot of political imagination and courage to break her grip.  Violence will only engender more violence.  Controlled legalisation would seem to offer the only way of undercutting the cartels and dispelling Death.  It would seem to be the rational solution.  Unfortunately politicians are rarely moved by reason.  


  1. Bloody hell. That picture at the top is simply horrendous.

    A good, article, but it only makes me more confused about the issue.

    I think, in the long term, that total drug legalisation may be the only solution. But the effect of that is extremely unpredictable, and I do not share libertarians' optimism that there would not be social disaster as a result. You would have to tailor the law somehow - make it illegal to be on drugs in public, perhaps, and consistently punish people who break that law. Otherwise there would, I think, be a serious danger of anarchy.

    As for how it would affect people in housing estates and so on, perhaps it is glib but it could be said that the supply (and use) of drugs in such areas is already as high as it could be.

    1. Seymour, I agree, there are simply no easy answers. Personally I can't take the pure libertarian position here. But things can't go on as they are.

  2. The problem with Mexico is that is full of Mexicans and other than that there are all the American drug addicts that provide the market. The US Federal Government generally does a poor job of securing the southern border but some improvements have been made.

    1. Yes, so I believe, Anthony, though it's a bit like a band aid for a cut throat.

  3. What a gaping bloody hole you've stuck your finger in this time, Ana.

    You should know that I was a typical 50s/60s kid with all the usual vices, plus some I invented. But in the late 70s, when serious criminals began to take over the UK drug trade, I could no longer enjoy; everything tasted of blood. A decade later, for my sins, I ended up editor of an anti-drug periodical, founded by a couple of ex-coke-dealer 12-Steppers expiating their debt to society by scamming advertising money from well-meaning idiots. The only thing honest about the operation was my copy. I worked hard to ensure that everything I wrote was true. As a result, I did a lot of deep research into the history of psycho-chemistry and the ways humans alter it for fun, profit and, especially, power. A long, long look into the Void. (Not long after I left, the publishers ended up paying a million dollar fine for interstate fraud, and narrowly avoided jail. But the editorial was squeaky clean:))

    There's a book I used back then called "From Chocolate to Morphine" by Dr. Andrew Weil (sometime associate of the Harvard Psychedelic Club, turned New Age health guru) that lists the properties of most psychoactive substances and their history. Coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar, and nutmeg have all spent time on the 'banned' list. Every natural high has been condemned as Satanic in its time. Pick your poison: someone, somewhere has denounced its demon nature and risen to power and influence at the head of a crusade to save mankind from chemistry.

    There is no substance more addictive than power, and power is no fun unless you use it. People love money, because money buys power. Those who have tasted the power that comes from keeping drugs illegal will not give it up unless they are forced to, particularly if they have come to enjoy the pleasure of killing. Maybe it is the spirit of the old gods at work. Meso-America has seen a lot of blood spilled in recent years over sugar, cocaine, coffee, opium . . . from Colombia and Peru through Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Hondurus, Guatemala, and recently, Mexico. Murders by the tens of thousands - almost like pre-Columbian times, eh?

    Power and death. Death and drugs. Drugs and demons. And fear of the demons in others arouses a demon in the 'virtuous.' Tezcatlipoca . . .

    1. Calvin, now you really have hooked me! I would love to see some of your copy. Is there anything you can link? I can give you my email address if necessary.

    2. Heck, that's really ancient history, Ana! Way pre-internet, even. I used almost the first DTP program -Xerox Ventura Publisher 1.0 - to do the layout, running under Microsoft Windows 1.2 (Man, we were state of the art!). Adobe Photoshop didn't even exist in those days, all the paste-up was done by hand, stuck on boards with wax, then photographed through actual engraved glass screens to produce the photo-neg that was used to make the offset printing plates. I may have some copies buried in the archives, but I doubt there's anything worth the search. After that, I went to work for a promotional company that needed a writer who understood environmental issues and could tell the truth about chemistry. Then I sold out and went to work for the government . . . Can you see a Rake's Progress in this sad tale of degeneracy?

    3. No, no; always a gentleman. :-)

  4. We have something similar down here, but it's called "San La Muerte", worshipped by the underworld in general and especially in the argentinean prison system (which was scary enough without this addition).
    A serious problem for us is that the crackdown on drugs in Mexico and in Colombia has caused many of the druglords to seek refuge elsewhere for themselves and their families. Many have taken roots in Argentina and the violence that usually comes with their presence is starting to show up every now and then.
    More and more often we see gruesome deaths of recent "immigrants" carried out by -mostly colombian- sicarios (professional hitmen) as they settle accounts among them in the only way they know.
    These people obviously have very deep pockets, so that they can buy immunity and are not likely to go away anytime soon.

    1. That's it exactly, Wilson. There is too much money here. No matter the risks the attractions are even higher. The only regulation, moreover, is violence. The greater the rewards the greater the horror.

  5. I am so glad that I took my time to read your post.
    I have to say it is not the substances that are evil. It is the inevitable percentage of the human population to use substances in dysfunction manner. While it is impossible to ban dysfunctional human behaviour, it does not make sense to ban anything else associated with the human behaviour.

    In your post, you pointed about about various regions have various forms of believes, life style and history baggage. It is always futile to force a change when majority of the people do not share the same ideal and understanding of the government.

  6. It’s not just the killing that’s shocking; it’s the ghastly nature of so many of the deaths. Beheadings with chainsaws are now commonplace.

    This is what happens when order breaks down and the crazies get to be in charge. It happened in Algeria with satan's army or so they called themselves and happened in Darfur with the Janjaweed.

    The correlation in the process wherever it happens is uncanny.

    1. James, that is so true. It's something else I must look at closely.

  7. Ana, it's a real problem - sure, it sounds reasonable to equate the prohibitions of Heroin and Cocaine to that failed attempt to prohibit alcohol, but they really aren't the same. Since almost ANY sugary liquid can be used to create alcohol, its pretty much impossible to prevent it's production. In contrast, Heroin and Cocaine can only be created using plants that grow outside of the US.

    Contrary to what you might think, the US Federal government is PERFECTLY capable of securing it's Southern border (especially now that 21st Century technology is available); it just doesn't choose to do so. Remember - the last two Democratic Presidents have admitted to having used illegal recreational drugs, their constituents in major centres of support (such as Hollywood and San Francisco) openly use them, and (especially in the case of the current admin) they have refused to secure the national border and have utilized the court system to prevent the Southwestern states from doing it.

    Clinton pardoned his brother Rodger (a convicted cocaine dealer), also dealers Altiere, Bagley, Maniss, & etc. ( for a looong list). When the chief executive officer just lets them go, why bother arresting them?

    No, as long as the "flower children" from the 1960's (their motto: Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n Roll) are still in power, the Federal government isn't going to be making much of an effort to enforce the law and stop the illegal importing of these dangerous, highly addictive drugs.

    1. CB, does Mitt Romney have a position on this issue? I would really like to know what it is if you can point me in the general direction.

    2. Ana, I did some checking, but he hasn't said much about it. In one video, a reporter asked him about his position on legalizing marijuana - his initial response mostly went along the line of "there are a lot more serious problems the nation needs to solve first" and provided a list of them. When she persisted, he said he was opposed its legalization as "it is a gateway drug" and "doctors already have synthetic THC they can prescribe".

      He is already on record as wanting to secure our Southern border (which would present a sizeable obstacle to the illegal drug trade), and he believes the best way to hinder drug production is to continue to support our South American allies' efforts to suppress the drug cartels and narco-terrorists.

      In general, as he is opposed to the ongoing expansion of the Federal government into every aspect of our lives, he is unlikely to introduce new Federal solutions to this problem. I think he is more comfortable having parents taking more responsibility for their children, and each county and state make a greater effort to enforce their own laws. For additional info see: []

      [NOTE: disclaimer - I went to [], limited myself to the yes/no answers and found that I was in 94% agreement w/Romney :-P ]

    3. Thanks, CB. I'll try myself a bit later and let you know where I end up Romney-wise!

  8. Yes Ana, unfortunately you are right. Politicians are rarely driven by rationality.

    Rationality would dictate that we analyse the 13 years of prohibition in the USA in the early part of the 20th century. It is an excellent example of how banning a substance that had a mass market simply leads to a massive rise in criminality, coupled with an equally massive rise in adulteration of the banned substance. this, in itself leads to many more avoidable deaths and injuries.

    Take current alcohol use in this country - problematic maybe, but generally nobody buys bootleg alcohol. Nobody is going to line the pockets of criminals buying dodgy and potentially deadly booze when they can buy legal (and relatively safe) alcohol.

    Nobody dies or gets blinded from booze adulterated with (say) wood alcohol as they did regularly in 1930's USA.

    Today in the UK, you know what the strength of the booze is because it says so in the bottle. Compare that to the average drug deal.

    To sell alcohol you need to go before a magistrate to show just how upright responsible and decent your are. Exactly the reverse is true for the average drug dealer.

    If a landlord or off licensee steps out of line he/she will lose their licence and trade. But nobody stops the crimmo's for selling heroin cut with scouring powder.

    Legalise it, Warn about it, and control it. Cut out the bad guys. There will inevitably be damage and tragedy but nothing like that which society currently endures.
    [rant mode off]

    1. Bill, You and I rant alike. :-) It's great to see you again.