Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Today is Mexican Independence Day, and this blog is dedicated to support and hope for a day when Mexico can be independent from US drug policy.

Celebrating independence in Juaréz

Although I live on the safe side of the border, the vast implications of the drug violence permeate the border with ease. I, in my short time here, can’t count on my fingers the number of people I have worked with that are refugees of the violence in Juaréz. One family I know became drug war refugees when they coincidentally were witnesses to a homicide, making them the next target. After receiving many shots to the body, and narrowly escaping death, this family fled to El Paso to seek safety. Their case is one of many. In September so far, more than 150 homicides have occurred in Juaréz.

What can be done to stop the drug war on the border? I offer this sequence of thoughts to shape an answer…

One of my jobs here is maintaining the bodega, which is basically our stock room where we keep all of our food, toiletries, and cleaning supplies. This job entails stocking, organizing, and ordering new supplies as needed. From the get go I knew that the ordering part of the job would inflict moral struggles for me.

I consider myself a minimalist, and have grown a harsh dislike to anything that I deem “unnecessary.” Of course unnecessary is incredibly vague and relative, but I use it to determine what I need, consume, and purchase. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to force (or at least try to force) my definition of necessary on others, and I often can’t understand, or at least can’t always sympathize if someone uses anything ‘unnecessary.’ I have learned slowly to get less agitated at the site of ‘unnecessary’ items in use…but having to order 200 lbs of something I consider unnecessary, that is a test of my ability to let go at a whole new level.

Some things that I have come to deem unnecessary are coffee, sugar, sweets, soda, chips, and so on. In my first fifteen days at Annunciation House we went through more than 150 pounds of sugar, which is used each meal to make some sort of sweet juice. In that same amount of time we went through ten jars of instant coffee, which is heavily relied on each morning. Eventually, the time came around when I had to order more of these ‘unnecessary’ items…or did I?

I began to wonder, “Do we really need sugar?” “Do we really need coffee?” And of course I thought that we didn’t need more of anything besides rice and beans. But then I wondered, is it my job to decide what we need, or to just supply the demand of the house, even if it may be unnecessary.

My inclination to deprive the sugar-toothed, caffeine-addicted population of the house must be rooted in some sort of self-righteousness. A belief that because I ‘know’ that coffee and sugar is unnecessary, and therefore wasteful, that I then have the right to control the use of it, by partially forcing my ideas on others through my power exerted as Mr. Bodega. The big question becomes, do I have the right to control anyone else’s consumption but my own, even if I have the power to?

This question gets debated among the volunteers. At one point during my antics of ‘unnecessary,’ another volunteer proclaimed, “give them some damn sugar, they are living in a shelter and you want to deprive them of a basic pleasure for your lofty environmental morals?” I would say that this is a very valid point. But my response is that if I know that sugar and coffee are bad for the body, nutritionally unnecessary, and environmentally destructive in their creation, wouldn’t I be crazy to not control the use of it since I have that power? The counter to that would be that taking someone else’s free choice into your own hands is never helpful or OK. It’s not helpful because people need to learn to make their own decisions, and not OK because each person deserves freedom and responsibility. And then my response to that is; do people still have the right to free choice even if their choices potentially harm other people or our Earth? I hold some belief in both of these opposing views, but struggle to focus on the fine line between free-choice and communal wellbeing.

I outline this argument not for the importance of sugar and coffee. I outline it because it is one conflict that defines life or death on the border.

These contradicting beliefs of free-choice and communal wellbeing also battle in my mind when I ponder national issues. I have spent much time hoping for a prohibition number two and exploring ways that it could work. I have even spent time hoping to make coffee illegal. But I also realize that once you go down that road of deciding what is right for other people, where does it end?

We are lucky to have prohibition, in its complete cycle, as such a clear example of what happens when the government attempts to define morality through legislative might.

It was the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919 that culminated a long temperance movement and began a period of prohibition in the US; in which the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol was illegal. Early on there was much public support for prohibition, and people became very confident of its permanence. In fact, one of its creators, Senator Merris Sheppard, suggested that, "there is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a humming-bird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail."

As time went by, opposition to prohibition increased. One particular group in opposition to prohibition was physicians, who had commonly used alcohol as a therapeutic prescription. Evoking thoughts of the current debate over medical marijuana, physicians began lobbying for the legalization of “medical liquor.”

The crime caused by the alcohol black market also inspired much opposition. Infamous gangsters such as Al Capone made their wealth through illegal alcohol sales, and committed their crime on its behalf. Much crime, theft, and murder, began to get directly linked to the criminal activities in violation of prohibition.

With increasing momentum in opposition of prohibition, maybe Senator Merris Sheppard began to expect the humming bird to fly to Mars.

Instead, prohibition was repealed. In 1933 Roosevelt proclaimed, “I think this would be a good time for a beer,” as he signed an amendment which legalized small amounts of low percentage alcohol. Later that year, the 18th Amendment was repealed completely with the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which cited that if alcohol is to be prohibited, it is the right of the states to decide.

The repeal provided for many benefits. Alcohol-based organized crime lost nearly all of its profits to low-priced alcohol sales at legal liquor stores, reducing violence drastically. The government and ordinary citizens began collecting revenue from the legal alcohol industry. And from a philosophical standpoint, citizens were provided the liberty that our constitution attempts to provide. Decreased violence, increased freedom. Decreased government expenditures, increased government revenue.

After repeal, some early supporters of prohibition accepted its flaws. John D. Rockefeller Jr., expressed that, “When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”

I think the dots could be easily connected to justify looking at the current drug problem through the prism of what prohibition has taught us. Currently humans face tragic and vast deaths from the battle for control of the intensely lucrative illegal drug trade. We face immense government expenditures to fight against drugs including upwards of 7 billion dollars annually for just the arresting and prosecuting of marijuana use offenses. Lastly, constitutionally we may be compromised, as it is often pointed out that drug prohibition is a usurpation of the power to regulate interstate commerce.

With the incredible toll that the illegality of drugs takes on the US identified, the call for legalization rings loudly in my ears. But what would that look like? Is it possible to predict? My guess would be decreased violence, increased freedom. Decreased government expenditures, increased government revenue.

As much as I consider sugar unnecessary, I consider drugs more unnecessary. However, an indicator of where my compass pointed me is that today I ordered 200 pounds of sugar and 20 jars of coffee. I have realized that just because something may be unnecessary, or even harmful, that does not warrant one body’s exertion of forced morals over another body’s right to free choice. People deserve to choose what they use…deserve the right to liberty. The vast amounts of people whose lives are taken each day by the prohibition of drugs deserve to survive…deserve the right to life.

Juaréz at night

Potentially evident from my blogs, I am a person who struggles with choosing a side in many issues. I get caught up in the ambiguities, and the apparent legitimacy of two opposing arguments. This issue however, is one that seems to be straightforward, which is why I am so surprised that the legalization of drugs seems so far out in the realm of feasible public policy. To me, we can achieve both enhanced free choice and enhanced communal wellbeing with one policy change.

Picture this: Obama sits at his desk, with a pen in his hand, and proclaims, “I think this would be a good time for a joint,” as he signs into law the legalization of drugs.

The absurdity of that image proves to me that there is a lot of work to be done and a long road ahead in the efforts to legalize, in the efforts to save thousands of lives, in the efforts to promote free choice, in the efforts to independence. Similar to most movements, this one will only grow with the momentum from public sentiment. That means us.