Opinion
10:13 am
Fri November 4, 2011

Crossing The Border: A Case For Legalizing Drugs

Originally published on Sun November 6, 2011 8:23 am

On the U.S.-Mexico border, officials are dealing with the war on drugs. Towns there have been plagued with violence. Commentator Austin Bay is a retired colonel in the Army Reserve and a Texas native with his own memories of the area. He has a proposal to reduce the drug-related brutality.

Mexico's border cities weren't always war zones. At one time, Matamoros was a fine place to get a steak. The orphanage in Nuevo Laredo, where my friend Fred volunteered, was lively and the kids delightful.

Back in 1982, Dad and I, on a trip to Big Bend, drove up to Presidio, then crossed into Ojinaga, ostensibly to buy a bottle of Oso Negro gin. Dad really wanted to show me what he thought was the most Mexican of the Texas-Mexico border towns.

As for Ciudad Juarez, the rank stench of Juarez's old smelter polluting the air it shares with El Paso, Texas, literally taints my memories of that great city. But I also remember my Uncle Gene telling me, when we were there in the late '80s, that Juarez's manufacturing plants paid comparatively higher wages than Mexico's interior. Juarez and El Paso are a double city, he said, and Juarez knows how El Paso works.

My uncle's observation reflected an optimism that thrived in the next decade, as Mexico entered an era of liberalizing political change and economic growth. But the drug war — the cartel war — puts that success at risk. And what powers the drug cartels? American demand for illegal narcotics.

El Paso knows how Juarez works and how it suffers, for El Paso bears firsthand witness to the bloody drug gang carnage in its neighbors' streets. In January 2009, the El Paso City Council toyed with the idea of recommending drug legalization as a means of crippling the finances of Mexico's criminal organizations. The City Council requested a national U.S. dialogue on ending the prohibition of narcotics. The council's resolution (which El Paso's mayor vetoed as unrealistic) upset several Texas state representatives. The state representatives argued the resolution indicated El Paso had surrendered in the fight against illegal narcotics.

Perhaps opinions have changed; I know mine has. Thirty years ago, I was against narcotics legalization. Now, reluctantly, I support a policy I call "legalization with stigmatization": If you work in a transport job — a pilot or bus driver, for example — you must submit to random drug use tests, like the U.S. military does.

Drug trafficking empowers terrorists and criminals. For the good of the U.S., as well as Mexico, we must open the dialogue on drug legalization.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On the U.S.-Mexico border, officials are dealing with another war - the war on drugs. Towns along the southern border have been plagued with violence. Commentator Austin Bay is a retired military intelligence expert and a Texas native with his own memories of the area, and he has a proposal to reduce the drug-related brutality.

AUSTIN BAY: Mexico's border cities weren't always war zones. At one time, Matamoros was a fine place to get a steak. The orphanage in Nuevo Laredo, where my friend Fred volunteered, was lively and the kids delightful. Back in 1982, Dad and I, on a trip to Big Bend, drove up to Presidio, then crossed into Ojinaga, ostensibly to buy a bottle of Oso Negro gin. Dad really wanted to show me what he thought was the most Mexican of the Texas-Mexico border towns. As for Ciudad Juarez, the rank stench of Juarez's old smelter, polluting the air it shares with El Paso, Texas, literally taints my memories of that great city. But I also remember my Uncle Gene telling me, when we were there in the late 1980s, that Juarez's manufacturing plants paid comparatively higher wages than Mexico's interior.

Juarez and El Paso are a double city, he said, and Juarez knows how El Paso works. My uncle's observation reflected an optimism that thrived in the next decade as Mexico entered an era of liberalizing political change and economic growth. But the drug war, the cartel war, puts that success at risk. And what powers the drug cartels? American demand for illegal narcotics. El Paso knows how Juarez works and how it suffers, for El Paso bears firsthand witness to the bloody drug gang carnage in its neighbor's streets. In January 2009, the El Paso City Council toyed with the idea of recommending drug legalization as a means of crippling the finances of Mexican criminal organizations. The city council requested a national U.S. dialogue on ending the prohibition on narcotics. The council's resolution, which El Paso's mayor vetoed as unrealistic, upset several Texas state representatives. The state representatives argued that the resolution indicated El Paso had surrendered in the fight against illegal narcotics.

Perhaps opinions have changed. I know mine certainly has. Thirty years ago, I was against narcotics legalization. Now, reluctantly, I support a policy I call legalization with stigmatization. If you work in a transport job, as a pilot or bus driver, for example, you must submit to random drug use tests, just like the U.S. military does. Drug trafficking empowers terrorists and criminals. For the good of the United States, as well as Mexico, we must open the dialogue on drug legalization.

INSKEEP: Commentary from Austin Bay. His most recent book, by the way, is "Ataturk: Lessons in Leadership from the Greatest General of the Ottoman Empire." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.