Monday, June 20, 2011

The War on Drugs at Forty: A Dealer's Opinion

This month is the 40th anniversary of the War on Drugs, declared by U.S. Pres. Richard M. Nixon in June 1971.

Back then, Colombia was a minor exporter of marijuana. While Washington has battled against drugs, Colombia's become the world's biggest exporter of cocaine. Aggresive erradication has reduced Colombia's cocaine crop in recent years, but coca leaf acreage has increased in Peru and Bolivia. During the last decade, violence has also decreased in Colombia - but escalated in Mexico.

Domestically, Colombia has also shifted toward prohibitionism. From the mid-1990s until a year and a half ago, it was legal to carry a 'personal dosis' of any drug for one's own use. That right was reversed by Congress after politicians complained that it made it hard to arrest dealers.

I asked a small-time marijuana dealer on Bogotá's Seventh Ave. what he thot about the War on Drugs - and got some surprising opinions.

He stands on a Seventh Ave. sidewalk with a bunch of trinkets in front him spread on a plastic sheet. The trinkets mean income and also provide a cover activity. When police approach, he scoops his trinkets up in the plastic and retreats to a corner.  

This guy, now 35, has been selling pot since he was 12, and he believes it's good that drugs are prohibited. If they were legalized, he says, "everybody would start smoking them and kill themselves."

That argument is disputable: alcohol and tobacco are legal, but not everybody consumes them. And, lots of people consume pot and even cocaine and manage their habits. The dealer does allow that getting high "means a good time," but still feels bad about his profession.

Many of this guy's strongest critiques are directed at basuco, a cheap and highly addictive form of crack cocaine. He knows of a businessman who became addicted to basuco and now lives on the street, scavenging food from trash cans.

When I point out that, despite prohibitionary laws, drugs are still easily available, this dealer points out that the law at least reduces consumption because "people have to consume it in secret." That's generally true, despite the occasional aroma of pot in Bogotá's air.

Coincidence? U.S. incarceration rates and the drug war. 
Finally, I ask him whether legalization would be good for him personally, as a businessman. Certainly it would, he says. He's been arrested about ten time for selling pot and once spent three years in prison. "Prison is really hard," he recalls.

But then I point out that, if drugs were legal, they'd be produced and sold like tobacco and alcohol, by big companies and stores. The illegal groups which traffic drugs and dealers like him would be out of business.

That wouldn't be so good for him, he agreed.

My pot dealer acquaintance seems like a nice guy. He's good natured, not violent and expresses concern about his clients, altho he doesn't go out of his way to pay taxes on his income. But much of the illegal drug industry is violent and unethical and resolves its differences at gunpoint. If drugs were legalized, my acquaintance would lose his street sales - but so would those huge outlaw groups which have done so much damage to Colombia and across the globe.

The billions spent by the U.S. and other nations battling drug production, trafficking and use have raised illegal drug prices and made them more difficult to obtain, cutting use. But the war has also funneled huge wealth to outlaw groups, and financed waves of violence in Colombia during past decades and more recently in Mexico and Central America. It's also ruined untold numbers of lives of users incarcerated or killed. My dealer acquaintance's criminal record, for example, most likely bars him from ever getting a formal job.

That's the pro- and con- of drug legalization: more access, and likely more use, but less violence and more taxes paid. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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