Joe Barrera: We Must End the War on Drugs

I have always stayed away from drugs, legal or otherwise, but they are a problem that we can’t ignore anymore. Recent events reveal the futility of drug prohibition. The massacre of the LeBaron fundamentalist Mormons in the Mexican border state of Sonora is a terrible tragedy. The large extended LeBaron families are descended from immigrants who fled to Mexico in the late 19th century to practice freely their religion which allows for polygamy or plural marriage, as the Mormons call it. The tragedy has made obvious the folly of the U.S. War on Drugs. This “war” is driven by the puritanical urge to police human behavior. In the context of religious liberty, which we see as one of our greatest achievements, it’s noteworthy that Mexico is much more tolerant of polygamy as a religious belief than the U.S. where it is outlawed. But we are spiritual descendants of the Puritans and we have a cultural trait that drives us to ban, prohibit, or make illegal anything seen as abhorrent, immoral and dangerous, even if there is insufficient evidence to justify the ban. This is why alcohol was made illegal during Prohibition and why there is now a wave of indignation and a movement to ban vaping. And this is why polygamy is illegal and why recreational drugs are illegal. We may abhor polygamy, but in our righteous wrath at the deaths of American women and children we have forgotten that polygamy was the reason that the American LeBarons chose to flee to Mexico. Our sense of moral superiority is so strong that there have been loud calls for a U.S. military intervention to destroy the drug gangs in Mexico. You may feel that this kind of thing would work both ways. Not so. Many of the dead in the recent El Paso Wal-Mart massacre were Mexican citizens from Ciudad Juarez, accustomed to visit El Paso for shopping. In response the Mexican government politely offered to help U.S. authorities fight the white supremacists who inspired the massacre. But the offer was rejected.

The slaughter of the innocents in Sonora was gruesome but maybe some good can come out of it. Maybe it will make us reevaluate our drug policies, as if the deaths of 150,000 Mexicans (a conservative estimate) since 2006, when the Mexican government at the insistence of the U.S. began its war on the cartels, were not enough to make us forsake our fruitless war on illegal drugs. The war in Mexico now has the character of a full-blown insurgency, with large swaths of the country under the control of the cartels, the often corrupt and ineffectual government having ceded authority to the stronger force. It is not a good thing to have a close neighbor in the throes of horrific violence. The war against the cartels will spread into our country and breed chaos and destruction. The disorder extends to Central America, causing the unending flow of migrants headed for our southern border.

We have not benefited from the huge expenditure of treasure and the spilling of blood. We know from their ubiquitous presence that the War on Drugs has not stopped the flow of cocaine, heroin, meth, marijuana, etc. into the U.S. But it has caused the incarceration of 500,000 Americans, with African Americans ten times more likely to be sent to state and federal prisons than whites. Fully 50% of federal prisoners and 16% of state prisoners are imprisoned on drug charges, at enormous expense to U.S. taxpayers. We incarcerate more women than any other country, meaning that we are in effect waging a war on women. 85% of women in prison are there on drug charges. Our constitutional due process rights and freedom from unlawful search and seizure are routinely violated by federal authorities who confiscate billions in asset forfeitures every year. Many police agencies have become addicted to easy money from asset forfeiture, leading to increased militarization of civilian police, never a good idea in a democracy. The police focus on the drug war and emphasis on tactics more suitable to urban warfare has led to a serious breakdown of communication and trust between law enforcement and local communities. This has made police work a far more dangerous occupation. And there are ripple effects. We have a deadly opioid epidemic in our drug-ridden society, with tens of thousands dead from legal doctor-prescribed pain-killers. But with the increased scrutiny on doctors and opioids, sufferers turn to the old stand-by, heroin, a cheaper alternative, further incentivizing the criminals in Mexico to supply this market. Thousands have died because people can easily overdose on heroin.

Let’s be honest. We have an insatiable appetite for drugs and the addictions they breed. Man-made laws cannot control this. There is a desire to get high, to slip into a drug-induced nirvana, to ease mental and emotional pain, to forget the daily grind of our hectic and often lonely lives. I have never used drugs, but I know drug tragedy from personal experience. My young nephew, a star student at Texas A&M and a proud member of the Corps of Cadets at that prestigious school, died of a heroin overdose. It was a terrible waste of a young life. My sister, his mother, is inconsolable. Sometimes late at night he appears in his ROTC uniform and says, “Please don’t forget me.”


Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS,  a lecturer in U.S. Southwest history, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Joe Barrera, Publisher, Literary Journal