Thursday, June 26, 2014

The un-winnable war on drugs: Charles Bowden's "Murder City" and the 12-pack nation


In March 2010, the Affordable Care Act was about to face its primary legislative hurdle. A majority of the judicial branch including a deciding vote by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts upheld the legality of America's national health care legislation. After that historic moment, there have been more than 40 Republican-led charges hoping to halt or dismantle the law. As the law takes effect in 2014 it is only now that the country is beginning to debate the real meaning of the words.

Yet this is just the surface of America's big-pharma business. Charles Bowden's study of the Mexican drug trade mentioned below, Murder City, illuminates an aspect of attitudes towards licit and illicit drug use that America still refuses to address. The politics-as-usual of a "twelve-pack nation" -- Bowden's term -- continues to shape the un-winnable war on drugs, a reactionary policy of fear over any substantive reform. (The state-by-state battle over medical use of marijuana is just a tentaive beginning to that long road.) 

The Supreme Court's decision regarding the Affordable Care Act was a victory of history over politics.  In 2014 the battle for health care has only begun as politicians both national and state-wide determine who gets what, when, why, and how much. No matter how the ideas are couched in rhetoric from the far-left to the far-right (those opposing views don't seem to merge anywhere, like a political Mobius strip) the clash of values is undeniably, uniquely American. 

One would assume those who consider ours a Christian nation (no ironic quotation marks) would be the first to suggest the health of all Americans to be a national aspiration, a charitable goal worthy of unanimous consent -- a Biblical view of charity extending from those who can afford the luxury of choice to those who cannot.

Not so much, it seems. The perceived "leveling" of health-care availability, couched in terms of "socialized medicine" and other less-flattering phrases by some, plays into so many unspoken issues in America of class and privilege that the right's "Kumbaya moment" with the left won't be happening over health care, ever. 

There is just too much money at stake, from the insurance-company CEO to the pharmaceutical manufacturer to the individual health-care payer, and too much political gain to be had by appealing to a political base. Compromise and "reaching across the aisle" is, apparently, a posture for the other guy to assume. 

And all this, of course, is by way of dealing with our country's already legal drugs and existing medical and insurance structures. Imagine what it might take for agreement on what to do about the other side of the coin: that nebulous, confounding and never-ending "war on drugs" that saps the Treasury, derails any attempt at a solution, and continues to fill American prisons to overflow. The solution could be as simple as decriminalization, as complex as legalization -- there's the money issue again -- but it's too much of a miracle to think that the country might pay for a health-care plan in part with the taxation and regulation of its now-illicit drugs.
Reporter Charles Bowden has written about effects of continuing drug wars in Mexico (his latest book is Murder City: Ciudad Ju├írez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields), and he sees inherent irony in America's approach to its own illegal drug trade.Interviewed March 16 on the Democracy Now website, Bowden puts it very succinctly: "we're a twelve-pack nation that won't let anybody smoke a joint." He makes the case that "there isn't a serious war on drugs. Rather, there is violence nourished by the money to be made from drugs," then goes on:
"We’re spending $30- to $40-billion a year on narcotics officers in this country. Every state in the union, if you get out of the house and drive, is now studded with little prisons, some private. They’re all dependent on the — on laws outlawing drugs. The income from drugs in Mexico exceeds all other sources of foreign currency, except possibly oil, and that’s debatable. In other words, if President Calderon succeeded in his claimed goal of eradicating the drug industry in Mexico, Mexico would collapse in a minute. That’s what I mean.
I mean, why don’t we face the fact that drugs are like alcohol? They’re part of our culture now. They’re not going away. If we want to make them illegal, we can continue to live the way we have: imprisoning our own people, creating a police state, having prisons everywhere. But no matter what we do, they’re going to be in the neighborhood, just as they are. 
There was an interesting government study released a while ago that said 232 American cities now have the presence of Mexican drug organizations. Well, look, I’m a little older, possibly, than some of your listeners, but if you bought a joint in 1975, it wasn’t coming from Finland or some place. They’ve always been here. It’s a market. All we’ve got to decide is whether it’s legal or illegal. That’s it. It’s like gambling. It’s got a life of its own." 
A great American awakening to defuse an un-winnable war on drugs is too much to hope for at this point. But slowly, attitudes towards the active ingredient in cannabis may be changing under the guise of helping children with uncontrollable tremors. Republicans are finding the idea of medical cannabis one that resonates with its suburban voter base, for the kids at this point. In the South this takes on a bit of hand-wringing: "Won't somebody think of the children?" It's a start.

Elsewhere, what happens in Colorado with over-the-counter herb sold for discrete "recreational" and "medical" purposes is an important -- if awkwardly comic -- first step. The nation is still waiting for politicians, big pharma, and the voters willing to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya." Then all of us can actually begin the real debate on the meaning of the words of the Affordable Care Act as a fundamental right of all Americans.

(Graphic: States filing lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act, from dailyKos.) 

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