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Last month residents of two states — Washington and Colorado — voted to decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. The new laws put the states at odds with the federal government and raise questions about whether, or how, the Obama administration will react. The new approach is also bringing conversations about the broader “war on drugs” back to the fore. We consider American’s changing attitudes towards illegal substances, and how the new state laws are affecting the country at home and abroad.
- Benjamin Wallace-Wells Contributing Editor, New York Magazine and Rolling Stone
- Peter Reuter Senior Economist, Rand Corporation; Professor of Public Policy and Criminology, University of Maryland
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. How do you know when a war is won? Victory used to be pretty clear cut: a peace treaty was signed, citizens and soldiers took to the streets to celebrate, and the countries involved began to rebuild and recover. But when you're fighting a substance or a number of them, the terms of surrender aren't as clear, especially when pockets of your own country are going rogue.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIEighteen states and the District of Columbia have laws on the books allowing the use of medical marijuana, and two, Colorado and Washington, legalized possession of up to an ounce of the drug last month, a move that raises lots of questions about federal enforcement and what the future of the so-called war on drugs looks like.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to help us sort through what has changed on that front, what hasn't and what may come next is Benjamin Wallace-Wells. He's a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and New York magazine. His latest feature in New York magazine is titled "The Truce on Drugs: What Happens Now That the War has Failed?" Benjamin Wallace-Wells joins us in studio. Thank you so much for joining us.
MR. BENJAMIN WALLACE-WELLSThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone is Peter Reuter. He's a professor at the School of Public Policy in the Department of Criminology at the University of Maryland. He's also a senior economist at Rand and co-founder of the Drug Policy Research Center. Peter Reuter, thank you for joining us.
PROF. PETER REUTERThank you.
NNAMDIPeter, the last time we spoke, a crackdown on medical marijuana in California was underway.
NNAMDINow, two states have legalized possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, no prescription required. So far, the federal government and the Obama administration has had a fairly muted reaction. Do you think that will continue?
REUTERWell, first of all, let me say I think you're understating just how radical a change Colorado and Washington have made. It's not just that possession is no longer an offense with -- you know, there's no penalty, but also there is in both states a system to be sent out for supplying it legally. And that's a complete transformation of policy as compared to any other country. I mean to make the obvious comparison, in the Netherlands, you can get it at coffee shops, and it's not -- in fact, they're legal to buy it and to sell small quantities, but it's not legal to produce and traffic it.
REUTERSo what Washington and Colorado have done is really a big step, and the federal government, I think, is working out a very complicated situation. It has international obligations which are really threatened by these changes. The U.S. has been the hawk in enforcing international drug conventions, and these clearly are violations of those conventions. So I think the federal government had difficulty working out how these particularly against two states that very nicely voted for the president. I think that probably weighs at least a little bit in the considerations.
NNAMDIWell, in 2004 when the president was running for the Senate, he talked about how badly broken our whole drug -- war on drugs system was. He also pointedly noted that he inhaled when he smoked marijuana. This puts him in a particularly difficult position, does it not?
REUTERYes. And I've always liked his response to the question about did you inhale, I think, during the 2008 campaign, and he says, just one word, that's really point -- really, I think, a great kind of phrase. He said, I'd rather thought that was the point.
REUTERAnd the president has certainly been critical prior to being elected and has been silent since. And that is sort of certainly a prudent position for him to take. I regret that he is not been willing to make more changes in drug policy, but this doesn't rank very high on the list of things that need the president's attention right now. And it gets him into a sort of very heated debate, and so I understand that he's been silent on it, or he wishes that a second term without having to worry about the future that he takes this up. I have no particular expectation that he will.
NNAMDIIn the state of Washington, the U.S. attorney for Seattle said, quoting here, "The department's responsibility to enforce the Controlled Substance Act remains unchanged. Neither states, nor the executive branch, can nullify a statute passed by Congress." Ben, in covering this issue, what surprised you most, both in California where the medical marijuana trade is booming and in Washington, on the eve of the vote to legalize?
WALLACE-WELLSI think the thing that was so striking in Washington, which reflects what's interesting more broadly, is the thoroughness and the rapidity of the move in the public consensus. So if you think of Washington as a place where the dam broke and the place where for the first time recreational use of pot was fully legalized in terms that Peter explained a moment ago, it's pretty arresting that those $6 million were put into the campaigns to legalize marijuana.
WALLACE-WELLSOnly $16,000 were put into the campaigns to prevent marijuana from becoming legal, so the thing that was really striking there was just that the thinness of the support for the continuing regime that that we have. I mean, public opinion and polls have shown that, you know, now, something like 50 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana.
WALLACE-WELLSTen years ago, it was 40 percent, 15 years ago, 30 percent. So there's a rapid change there, but I think that that funding number shows even more clearly the trajectory. And I think in many ways, that's true, though the trajectory is less dramatic of the broader war on drugs as well where there is a clear recent shift in opinion.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're inviting you to join this conversation by calling us here at 800-433-8850. Do you think voters in Colorado and Washington State made the right decision in legalizing possession? Why, or why not? You can also send us email to firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Ben, the votes in Washington and Colorado raise a lot of broader questions about the so-called war on drugs. You recently wrote about the truce on drugs. Is this war effectively over, and, if so, what's taking its place?
WALLACE-WELLSIt's a really complicated and really interesting question. I last wrote broadly about the war on drugs five years ago, and then there were a few people who would say the war on drugs is a failure, but they tended to be either very liberal or very committed libertarians. You know, they tended to have long hair and unconventional ties. What's happened in the last five years is that you've started to see with much more frequency that single phrase, the war on drugs has failed, coming up much closer to the political mainstream.
WALLACE-WELLSSo this summer, Chris Christie, the moderate Republican governor of New Jersey, said at a Brookings panel, the war on drugs has failed You know, last summer, George Shultz, the former Reagan secretary of state, put his name on a international report that said the same thing. And so what's happened in that time is a migration of this feeling towards the center of the political establishment.
WALLACE-WELLSWhat's interesting to me and the kind of thing that triggered this piece was trying to figure out, OK, so what does it mean to say that the war on drugs has failed? What does that do for you? And as we discuss and Peter has researched this at great length, for drugs other than marijuana, there's not a clear legalization alternative. You know, it's probably really, really unwise from a public health perspective to legalize cocaine or methamphetamine or heroin.
WALLACE-WELLSAnd so what you end up having and what I saw in pot in California and inner-city crime in Baltimore and with policy south of the border is that people's moral intuition, their sense of what's right and what's wrong, has become uncoupled from the war on drugs as they see it. And so what you have is these ad hoc on-the-ground efforts to try to be a little bit innovative and to try to make up that gap.
NNAMDIPeter, same question to you, is the war on drugs effectively over?
REUTERI mean I think Ben correctly said people may -- there may be a growing sense that it has failed, but what exactly you put in place is awfully unclear, except for marijuana. I mean marijuana has always been its own policy issue quite separate, which, I think, represents the reality that the drug occupies a very different place in American life. I mean half of every American born since 1960 who's reached the age of 21 has tried marijuana. If you ask what the figure was for cocaine or heroin, it would be, you know, 5 percent, something like that.
REUTERSo this is the one illegal drug that's in mass use, and it's always sort of occupied a different sphere in political terms. When it comes to heroin and cocaine, whether or not legalization is a good idea -- and I think it is complicated to work that out -- there certainly is no public willingness to consider that seriously. And then you're left, well, so how do we make prohibition work less badly? And, you know, my shtick in this is, look, we lock up 500,000 people for drug offenses.
REUTERI'm not talking about drug-related offenses, drugs like -- crimes they committed because they were using drugs, but just violations of drugs, selling or drug possession, mostly drug selling laws. And let's just go back to the good old Ronald Reagan days. He was no softie on this, but managed to get by with less than half that number. And I think we just have wildly punitive sentencing systems for dealing with drug offenders. And one thing we could do, which would at least make the drug war less troubling, make drug prohibition less troubling, is simply lock up people for shorter periods of time.
NNAMDIAllow me to go to the phones because Howard in Adamstown, Md., I think, has a comment on that specifically. Howard, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HOWARDYeah. Thank you. As a retired police detective, I'd just like to say that one of the issues rarely discussed with marijuana prohibition is the reduction in public safety. As a street cop, I learned every hour we spend chasing a green plant is one less hour to chase a public safety threat, like a drunk driver, a pedophile, somebody flying airplanes at a buildings, and so public safety is reduced, from my perspective as a professional, by marijuana prohibition. And also, in terms of the general terminology, it's important for the audience to know the war on drugs is simply a strategy to make prohibition effective.
HOWARDEurope has prohibition, but they do not have a war on drugs, which as more -- many in your audience know -- is a war on people, mostly of color. And last, people talk about the war on drugs is somewhat a success because drug use is down by half over the last 30-odd years, including marijuana. It's important for the people to understand that is not because of police efforts. The availability of marijuana had been constant and high, easily, readily available for 30, 35 years, so it is not because of police efforts that drug use is down.
HOWARDAnd it's important, I think, for the audience to know it.
NNAMDIHoward, thank you for making that call. You allow me to have Ben talk about the fact that he talked, it would seem, at some length with the former Baltimore police chief who talked about how policing changed under his time in Baltimore. For those fans of "The Wire," you may be interested in what Ben has to say about that.
WALLACE-WELLSThe police commissioner in question is a guy named Fred Bealefeld, who retired this summer after six years as commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department. What Bealefeld's sort of efforts during his six years were to try to reorient his own department so that, instead of focusing on drug crime, they focused much more narrowly on violence. One of the major -- in Bealefeld's own words, the major obstacle that he had to try to refocusing his -- to try to refocus his own department was to change the way that his officers thought of themselves.
WALLACE-WELLSHe said, you know, for people who grew up in the '80s and '90s, the bulk of my workforce, they saw -- they grew up watching the "60 Minutes" episodes with gunships in Columbia. They saw the war on drugs as a militarized thing. And they thought, that's what I'm -- you know, that's my job. I'm part of the war on drugs. And he said that his most profound challenge was just shifting that so that, instead of thinking that in order to get at violence, you necessarily had to chase down every low-level drug dealer on the street and put him away.
WALLACE-WELLSAnd you necessarily had to go after, you know, kids with a bag of weed in their pocket, that, instead, you could focus on people, who, in his experience, in his case, had prior arrests for violent gun offenses. And if you could do that, you could much more narrowly cleave off the people who are truly violent in the worst neighborhoods in Baltimore from the people who were just peripherally or economically involved in the drug trade. He said we had to move from fishing with a net to fishing with a spear.
NNAMDIAnd, Peter, you mentioned there that there are, in a way, subcategories of this problem, of this issue, if you will. You mentioned marijuana being in a separate category. You mentioned drugs like cocaine and heroin also being in a separate category. But you point to a third category, which you call a kind of trends issue, and that is new drugs.
REUTERYes. There's always -- I mean, there's always a new drug which represents sort of the terrifying future. And what's curious is how few of them have actually made it into the market. I mean, look, there are huge numbers of new, potentially attractive drugs that, you know, sort of come and go. And I'm really surprised by how conservative the market has turned out to be. I mean, we still have a drug problem that is dominated by the traditionals: marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine. Methamphetamines have been around for a long time.
REUTERAnd even ecstasy is fairly old now. But, you know, things like GBH and salvia sort of seem to come and go. Now, maybe one of them will turn out to be both really dangerous and really popular, but it's striking how little has happened, really. There is one sort of important exception to that, which is prescription drugs. Misuse of prescription drugs has changed dramatically over the last 15 years or so. But in terms of really new drugs, that just has been a surprisingly small part of the problem.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation of the future of the war on drugs. We are interested in hearing from you at 800-433-8850. Does the so-called war on drugs need to be rethought? Is it over, or do you think it's just hitting its stride? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on the future of the so-called war on drugs. We are talking with Benjamin Wallace-Wells. He's a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and New York Magazine. His latest feature in New York Magazine it titled "The Truce on Drugs: What Happens Now That the War has Failed?" Peter Reuter joins us by phone. He's a professor at the School of Public Policy and the Department of Criminology at the University of Maryland. He's also a senior economist at RAND and co-founder of their Drug Policy Research Center.
NNAMDIWe're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Ben, you have written that each one of these drugs, as Peter was also pointing out, raises a different question. You say the problem of marijuana is how to accommodate a drug we no longer fear. The problem of cocaine and of heroin is how to control these substances that we do fear but can't eradicate and how to weigh their harms.
NNAMDIPeter, a lot of people seem to feel that, well, alcohol might be just as dangerous, if you will, as either cocaine and heroin, yet we have found a way how to regulate it. But there seems be some concern now about marijuana as a gateway drug to alcohol?
REUTERWell, OK, let me take that in two parts. You know, comparing cocaine to alcohol is interesting. It, you know, in terms of the social -- let's say both of them are legal. Would cocaine cause more damage than alcohol? It's a difficult question, not obvious that it would. But the question is, why would you want to add to our public health problems with intoxicating drugs? I mean, there is an answer because the alternative may be that, you know, cracking down on cocaine has more cost than you gain in reduced use.
REUTERBut just to say that cocaine is less harmful than alcohol isn't to say there's a good idea to legalize it. As to the sort of marijuana and the gateway effect, I think the evident -- the research on gateway effect is pretty clear. It is a gateway. That is, if you have marijuana -- if you have prohibited marijuana, then people who use that are more likely to go on to use other things.
REUTERBut whether that's because it's the marijuana or because they get involved with illegal markets, the research just gives you no insight whatsoever. So, yes, prohibited marijuana is a gateway. Let's figure out if legal marijuana is a gateway. That's a very different question.
NNAMDIBen, I guess, before I go to the international aspects of this because I really want to, part of the problem with the war on drugs seems to be the vast number of issues that fall under that broad umbrella. Do we need to change the way we think about our legal and cultural approach to the issue, or is that shift already underway?
WALLACE-WELLSI think it's sort of quietly underway. It's beginning to be underway, but, you know, we have a long way to go. I think that -- look, the war on drugs, because it was never declared, because it was sort of a concomitation (sic) of all of these different customs and practices and laws, is an organism that can't be easily reversed. You know, it wouldn't necessarily have such meaning for President Obama to go out and say the war on drugs has failed, which I'm sure he has no, you know, no intention of doing anytime soon.
WALLACE-WELLSWhat matters is, you know, shifts in treaty, shift in -- shifts in how prosecutors and police treat criminals, shifts in how we -- way the cooperation of countries south of the border in the war on drugs in terms of our overall relations with them. And all of those things are very complicated and take a lot of undoing. So I think we're a long ways away from some shift. And it's also not totally obvious to see how that shift would happen.
NNAMDIPeter, after almost eight decades that -- since we've ended prohibition of alcohol, are there any lessons to be taken from that experience that we can relate to marijuana?
REUTERWell, oh, to marijuana? Hmm. Well, one thing you could say is that after -- when prohibition came to an end in 1933, many states, perhaps most of them, had very tight controls on alcohol. It was legal but, you know, limited advertising, limited distribution. It was not meant to be easily gotten. And then, over time, that got eroded for two reasons: one was states got greedy and wanted more money from their alcohol monopolies when they kept them, and then the industry acquired more and more political power.
REUTERSo you think about marijuana, and, man, gee, maybe in the beginning, Washington state will have a very tight, regulated market and just sort of make it available but prevent it being promoted and not make it all that easy to get and tough about packaging and all of that.
REUTERAnd then you worry whether over time the same thing will happen as happened with alcohol, which is it will get less restricted, there'll be more promotion, the states will get interested in -- and I think it's not just going to stop at Washington State that states will get more interested in revenues they can extract from promoting the drug. So I think that's an important lesson from the experience of repeal.
NNAMDIBen, you have written that prohibition is not necessarily an apt comparison because as there was a prior culture to draw from with alcohol, a prior legal culture, there's no similar prior legal culture with marijuana.
WALLACE-WELLSYeah. I think we don't have a very good sense of what marijuana use and distribution and culture will look like as it spreads. I mean, Amsterdam is one model. But as Peter says, there are even certain differences between what Amsterdam looks like and what Washington and Colorado have contemplated.
WALLACE-WELLSAnd, you know, because so much of marijuana culture is caught up in its illegality, that sort of, in many ways, the future that's defined the culture of pot so far, I think, you know, we don't have a very good guide that will tell us, you know, how much will use grow under a legal or semi-legal regimen. You know, will crime and violence be, you know, not at all part of the marijuana trade around the edges in the future, or will there still be some crime and violence around the edges?
WALLACE-WELLSYou know, will U.S. producers be able to entirely drive out foreign producers from the market? I mean, there's all sorts of questions, and because we don't have a prior experience either culturally or legally that tells us here's what this would look like, we're a little bit in the dark.
NNAMDIThere are a lot of...
REUTERCan I add a story of -- from the Netherlands about how patents of use could change if it becomes legal?
REUTERSo I was talking to a Dutchman -- I think he actually works for the Ministry of Justice there -- and he was talking about how Americans only smoke marijuana to get stoned. I was a little taken aback by that. I thought that was rather the point. But no, no, no, no, he was bringing up his son to sort of imbibe it like cognac after dinner. In fact, that was how he mostly used it. And a son of an American friend who visited him and had sort of immediately gone to the coffee houses and gotten stoned, whereas he was trying to bring up his son to use marijuana, you know, responsibly, same as with alcohol.
REUTERI said, no, that would represent quite a change in the culture. Now, I can't say I have an abundance of stories like that from the Netherlands to back that up, but it sort of pointed to the kinds of changes that Ben's talking about. Those are very difficult to predict. Will we develop, as with alcohol, a sort of a responsible smoking culture?
NNAMDIYou wanted to say, Ben?
WALLACE-WELLSEven the drug itself is -- I mean, you know, when I was talking with pot growers and producers in California, one of the things they told me was that before medicinal marijuana came in kind of altered the market, everybody would try to amp up the THC content. They would try to make the most intoxicating strain of, you know, marijuana that they could.
WALLACE-WELLSAnd when they recombined plants to try to find, you know, the most marketable breed of plant, that's what they would aim for. There's been some shift. It's quite possible that these growers are sort of overstating the degree of this shift. But some shift in the medicinal marijuana market -- I talked to a guy who runs the largest dispensary in Oakland, and he told me that they have, you know, really worked with growers to try to...
NNAMDIBasically moderate some of the effects.
WALLACE-WELLSYeah. Yeah, moderate some of the effects. You know, they have strains that are particularly designed for people with epilepsy. They have sort of reintroduced a chemical called CBD, which takes the edge off the THC high, which had sort of disappeared from the plant during its long illegality. So again, I don't know exactly how much that's just the sort of, you know, the kind of friendliest face that pot growers can put on their product. But it is something that has happened, at least in limited degree and is, to me, at least interesting.
NNAMDIJenny in Arlington, Va. is going to take us to the international aspects of this. Jenny, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JENNYHi. I was hoping your guests could comment on the United States' presence in terms of fighting the global war on drugs in Latin America. For example, in 2011 and 2012, the U.S. financed fumigation in parts of Afro-Columbian parts of Columbia, and also their ideas about outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderon, in many regards, people claimed failed war on drugs. Thank you.
NNAMDIBen, you have written about this. And, Peter, also, Americans' use of drugs is an issue with implications well beyond U.S. borders. How do you think these moves in Colorado and Washington will affect America's interaction with other countries on this front? I'll start with you Ben, given what Jenny just said.
WALLACE-WELLSYeah, I mean, you know, the history of our backing of fumigation efforts in the Andes -- eradication efforts in the Andes and, you know, efforts at stopping transit through Central and Latin America goes back, you know, far farther and is far more robust than just the last couple of years. But what was interesting to me in looking at the history of the efforts to legalize at a state level, marijuana in the U.S., is how strong the Mexican response was both times.
WALLACE-WELLSIn 2010, when California was considering a similar measure, President Calderon, who had, you know, through the last six years of his term has -- had really militarized the war on drugs in Mexico and really gone after the cartels and, you know, 60,000 Mexicans have died in the last six years in that effort, which is just a shocking, you know, a shocking degree of loss and death.
WALLACE-WELLSIn 2010, when California was trying to legalize marijuana, Calderon came out very publicly and, you know, almost angrily against the measure, and said, you know, what is -- this is an extreme double standard, you know, that you're going to be asking us to go to the mat to keep the cost of drugs in the United States high while, at the same time, you know, with your other hands, that you're going to legalize recreational use. It's insane.
WALLACE-WELLSWhen -- in this year, when Colorado and -- right after Colorado and Washington made the decisions they did, the incoming president of Mexico, Pena Nieto, you know, both -- first his advisors and then he, said in different words, you know, we're going to need to rethink the first principles of our security agreement. So the thing that's up for at least notional discussion is, you know, whether we will and can keep demanding that countries south of the border do everything they can to keep drugs from cheaply entering the United States at -- even at extreme costs.
NNAMDIPeter Reuter, does this complicate President Obama's foreign policy? You said, clearly, this is not at the top of his agenda. He has greater things on his mind. But could Colorado and Washington have forced his hand, so to speak, when countries like Mexico and Honduras and El Salvador all saying we need to rethink this?
REUTERWell, yes. I mean, clearly it complicates dealings with Mexico. Remember there's not a lot of marijuana trafficking through Central America. That's predominantly cocaine, maybe methamphetamine, but not much comes from south of Mexico. So Mexico is the -- almost the solely aggrieved party, so to speak, in these matters. But, of course, the Mexican-U.S. relationship is an important one, and this is a big complication. I mean, the war on drugs dominated Calderon's presidency. Well, he made it his signature issue, and it came to be the millstone around his neck.
REUTERI think the next president does not want that to happen. On the other hand, the levels of violence are so high that he can't avoid making it at least a prominent issue. And I think the Mexican anger at the hypocrisy of two states -- and you -- amazingly, you keep referring to the legalization of possession. That's not the big issue here. It's the legalization of production and sale that really sticks in the Mexican core. So when it comes from Mexico, you know, this is just another protectionist move.
REUTERSo we're protecting the Colorado and Washington industries from Mexican import. I mean, that's obviously not exactly the right way of putting it, but it is one way of putting it. And why a Mexican life should be spent preventing marijuana coming across the border in light of that legalization defies the Mexican imagination.
WALLACE-WELLSAnother way of putting part of what Peter just said is that, you know, though this group of policies, the war on drugs, is not so high on President Obama's list, it is incredibly high on the list of priorities for the Mexican president. The Mexican president is not a completely ignorable factor in American foreign policy.
NNAMDIBen, some potential solutions to the problems created by drug trafficking are not exactly savory or clear-cut. Tell us what you found in El Salvador.
WALLACE-WELLSThis is a kind of extreme case, but each of the countries in Central America, just south of Mexico, have huge problems with organized crime. And in many cases, those go back generations, but, in most cases, they've been exacerbated by the increasing sophistication in violence of the Mexican cartels.
WALLACE-WELLSIn El Salvador, the feud between the two central prison gangs, gangs that were emanated from and were sort of centered in the nation's prison system, had so threatened to overwhelm civil society that, in a kind of backdoor way, the Salvadorian government arranged for, you know, a priest and a former guerilla fighter to mediate a truce between these two gangs. And the government made certain concessions. We don't know the full extent of those concessions.
WALLACE-WELLSBut we know some of their details involved, you know, better treatment within the prisons for the leaders of each of these gangs in order to keep them from fighting each other. That's a sort of extreme case. But the fear of some of the policymakers I spoke with who deal with violence south of the border is that, particularly in Central America, where the states are weaker than they are in Mexico or Columbia where you have large and fairly wealthy states, that you're talking about groups with the cartels that sort of defy a state's ability to thwart them.
WALLACE-WELLSAnd so as they move out not just from the drug trade into extortion, into other activities that much more centrally threaten the role of the state, the Salvadorian example is a kind of nightmare vision of what we might have to do, to literally cut deals with cartels in order to protect territory. I mean, my suspicion is that, at a day-to-day level, this happens in particular towns and cities in Mexico all the time, you know, that you have de facto arrangements, that, you know, if you guys keep things quiet, you know, we the police won't come after you too hard.
WALLACE-WELLSBut to have it be almost formalized, to be done from a central government level, is genuinely scary to a lot of people. That is, again, an outlier. That's not mostly where we are, but it is some people's worry about where we're going.
NNAMDIAfter writing this piece, did you walk away from the experience with any sense of where we're headed from here?
WALLACE-WELLSI left it with maybe a different emotional impression, you know? I think I felt a little sunnier about things in the United States. You know, I felt as if, in the long run, our trajectory may be a little bit smarter than I'd thought before, in part because of some of the policy innovations that I saw, and in part because just the raw use of cocaine in particular seems to be very steadily declining. South of the border, I left with a far darker impression.
WALLACE-WELLSIt does seem as if, you know, not only has -- not only is there sort of this institutional place now for cartels in Mexican and Central American society that even if you defeat a particular cartel, it will be filled by somebody. But as the U.S. markets maybe decline a little bit, and as markets for illegal drugs grow in Latin America and in Europe, the ability of American policy to affect what's happening south of the border may itself have -- may itself be declining.
WALLACE-WELLSSo we may be getting to a point where, you know, our ability -- even if we get religion on drugs, even if we get smarter on drugs, our ability to alter the trajectory of drug trafficking in the continent may be somewhat diminished.
NNAMDIPeter Reuter, are we, in fact, getting smarter on drugs?
REUTERWell, I'd like to be as optimistic as Ben. I think policing has gotten smarter, and that's important. I could believe that there'll be fewer arrests because the police just sort of work out other ways of regulating drug markets. What bothers me is the sentencing system. So, you know, we've had declining drug markets for heroin and cocaine for quite some time, and we've managed to lock up more and more people for these offenses.
REUTERAnd I think the dynamic is that, essentially -- something with cocaine. A story is clearest here. With cocaine, we've got an aging market. The users are getting older. The sellers are getting older. They hit the criminal justice system -- they hit the courts time and again. Each time they come back, they look worse than before. You know, they have a longer history of addiction, a longer criminal record, and they get a longer sentence.
REUTERAnd drug courts have no -- don't -- aren't helpful to them because drug courts only take people with fairly minor criminal histories. And so we lock up more and more people, I think, with less and less justification. So to that extent, I think the drug policy problem is getting worse, and, you know, the racial disparities here are just overwhelming -- I mean, worse even than the rest of the criminal justice system. I think there's something about the aging of the cocaine population that's going to make this problem get somewhat worse over the next few years.
NNAMDIPeter Reuter. He's a professor at the School of Public Policy in the Department of Criminology at the University of Maryland. He's also senior economist at Rand and co-founder of their Drug Policy Research Center. Benjamin Wallace-Wells is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and New York magazine. His latest feature in New York magazine is titled "The Truce on Drugs: What Happens Now That the War Has Failed?"
NNAMDIGentlemen, thank you both for joining us. If you have called, stay on the line because when we come back, it's Your Turn. You can continue to weigh in on this issue or anything else on your mind. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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