Legalization, An Alternative to the Costly, Failed U.S. War on Drugs

Posted Feb. 2, 2011

Real Audio  Real Audio  podcast  MP3

Interview with Terry Nelson, a retired U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

drug In October 2009, the U.S. Border Patrol fired employee Bryan Gonzalez just before his two-year probationary period was up. He was terminated for the personal opinions he expressed several months earlier to a fellow officer. Gonzalez told his co-worker that the best way to reduce drug-related violence on the U.S.-Mexico border was by legalizing drugs. He also stated that as a Mexican-American, he understood why many Mexicans felt they had no choice but to try to enter the U.S. without documents in search of jobs. On Jan. 20 of this year, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed a lawsuit against the Border Patrol for firing Gonzalez on the basis of his personal beliefs expressed in a casual conversation, rather than his job performance.

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition or LEAP, is supporting Gonzalez. The group is made up of 30,000 -- mostly retired -- police, judges, prosecutors and others who believe the drug war the U.S. has been waging for the past 40 years is an expensive failure -- and that legalizing and taxing drugs would reduce violence.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Terry Nelson, a retired U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent who spent 30 years fighting the drug war on the Mexican border, throughout Central America and parts of South America. He discusses the cost of the drug war in terms of lives ruined and tax dollars expended while offering an alternative vision for reform.

TERRY NELSON: For example, we spent a little over $7 billion on Plan Colombia to eradicate the coca crop. At the end of the program, the vice president of Colombia announced that coca production was up 27 percent, so instead of lowering production, it actually raised it. And to add on that point, it doesn't really matter. So we get about 16 to 17 percent of the narcotics being shipped to us; we interdict that amount, the rest of it gets through. So let's say, for example, we got 50 percent of the narcotics coming through; all that would do is drive up the price on the remaining 50 percent and increase the violence, because the trade routes would be more lucrative. It's a hamster wheel; you can't get off that way.

So LEAP's position is that we need to trade our total strategy from one of interdiction and prohibition of the narcotics to legalization, whereas you have a chance to regulate and control the distribution of manufacture and who can buy it, who can sell it, and you take the criminal drug gangs and cartels out of the matrix. Now, we acknowledge that this doesn't fix our drug problem; this fixes the crime and violence problem and the 30,000 lives that have been lost in Mexico in the last 3.5 years. We do away with most of the violence; not all of it, but probably 80 percent of the violence we'll do away with.

It doesn't do anything for our drug problem, because it's a separate problem. Our drug problem is a social problem and a medical problem, best dealt with through education, and when you fall through the cracks and become addicted or you start abusing certain drugs, you need medical care to cure yourself of it. Putting a person in prison doesn't cure their addiction; it just postpones it 'til they get out, plus it also puts him in contact with true criminals that are in there for violent reasons. So we think it's a hamster wheel and the best way would be to change the whole approach: legalize it, regulate and control it, educate, and treat. And the places that have done it, i.e., Portugal just released a ten-year study where they decriminalized all drugs -- they didn't legalize them because of United Nations treaties that we have with the whole world -- but they have half the drug use in Portugal that surrounding countries in Europe do and half what we have in the U.S.

Ironically, the countries with the harshest penalties -- Britain and America -- have the highest drug use. So you see what we're basing our argument on. It would be more humane -- certainly more humane, because we put 2.2 million people in prison each year, and 1.8 million of those are non-violent drug offenders, of whom 800,000 are marijuana possession alone. And the government has no issue prosecuting you, convicting you and then sending you to a treatment center. Let's just do away with that conviction, because you can get over an addiction, you can never get over a conviction. It follows you the rest of your life. If you don't give them this felony sentence, you can treat 'em and make them well and they can go out and start paying taxes on a higher salary and they're no longer a drain on society, they then become a plus to society.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Just about every state and the federal government are facing huge budget holes. Even if we didn't legalize and therefore tax drugs, just ending the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders would save billions of dollars. Do you think the budget crisis will help your cause?

TERRY NELSON: Well, we've always believed there'd be a watershed event that really pushed our movement forward very rapidly, and collapse of the economy is one of them. But we spend about $70 billion a year prosecuting the drug war -- the people put in jail, the $30,000 a year to keep a person in jail, the court costs, the police costs, the overtime costs, all this stuff. So that's about $70 billion a year. And, the Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron, guestimated we could make probably $17 billion to $20 billion in tax revenue by taxing it. But the social savings alone would be phenomenal. I would recommend, if you tax it, using the revenue to treat those falling through the cracks. Of course, you know how that would work: They'd probably take the revenue and put it in the general fund and buy vehicles for the officials to drive around in.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Terry Nelson, there's a debate in some circles between those who support decriminalization but not legalization. Why does LEAP support legalization, which I guess is the most extreme of these options?

TERRY NELSON: Because decriminalization doesn't fix the core problem, which is the drug cartels and criminal street gangs that control the distribution. They're the violent ones, not the users. So decriminalizing, all you do is, you do help the lower end here, but you don't fix the problem. We're not for Band-aids, and we've got to think outside of America. It's not just America that has this; it's a global problem. In America, we have a very low death rate compared to other parts of the world; we have like 9 per 100,000 and Jamaica has 38, 39 per 100,000. We're very fortunate it hasn't hit us...and remember, 30,000 people have been killed in Mexico in the last 3.5 years, since Plan Merida went into effect. This is not just an American problem; this is a global problem. LEAP has members in 90 different countries in the world, by the way. So we have people on the streets telling us what's going on there. We understand the global effects of this drug war. So, for example, even if we could manage to control the intake here in America to some extent, it would just push it up in other parts of the world, so you haven't fixed the problem, you've put a Band-aid on this area, and believe me, once they start tightening down over there, the balloon effect will come into effect, and usage will come back here once you gear down a little bit. So you need to fix the problem.

Contact LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, by calling their Massachusetts office at (781) 393-6985 or visit their website at