America's hardest battle — waging the impossible 50-year war on drugs
Had he not asked the cab driver where to get cocaine on the way to the dock, Bradley Nelson wouldn’t have arrived late only to see his cruise ship sailing back to Florida. But at least now he and his travel partner could enjoy their coke during one more night on the beaches of Cancun.
“I had always heard about how the drugs get better the closer they are to the source,” he says. “I didn’t figure I would be making it back to Mexico anytime soon, so why not check it out?”
He didn’t know the cab driver, let alone Spanish. All Bradley said was “cocaine,” and before he knew it, the driver was frantically weaving through all the right alleys to make a quick dollar off of a couple of “gringos.”
Nelson is only one of millions of drug law violators targeted by a 40 year-old War on Drugs. For 35 of those years, Nelson has played his role in the war as a perpetrator. He still recalls smoking his first joint as a senior in high school in 1976.
“I was cruising down Fourth Avenue in Holdrege, and some of the older fellas came up to me and asked if I wanted to smoke,” he says. “We went out to the country, and the rest is history.” Nelson has been an occasional pot smoker since.
Drug free America?
The term “war on drugs” was popularized by President Nixon in 1971 when he identified drug abuse as “public enemy No. 1.”
It was clear that the new decade had inhaled much of what defined the 1960s. More than the hippies’ psychedelic colors and various symbols of peace, the movement openly embraced the use of drugs as an alternative to explore different states of consciousness. These times were the heyday of illegal drug use, and posed a threat to society that lawmakers thought could be subdued only by waging a war against it.
In the mid 1970s, nearly 50 percent of the population 18 to 45 years old reported using an illicit drug. In order to combat “an all-out global war on the drug menace,” the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was also created under the Nixon administration in 1973.
Today the war lives on. At a rate of about $500 per second, the War on Drugs costs the U.S. Federal government $15 billion in 2010. Yet a “drug free” America is not in sight.
“There is not a single country on this planet that is drug free,” says Mickey Gifford, an ex-drug connoisseur. “How can there be a drug free America when states just next door have already legalized the use of certain drugs?”
Gifford, a Kearney native, became part of “public enemy No. 1” in 1972 when he first smoked marijuana as an 8 year old. By the time he was in junior high, Gifford was dealing drugs.
“I first started dealing to get my own supply for free,” he says. “I have always been business oriented, though,” he says with a sarcastic edge. “In elementary school, I got in trouble for dealing gum.”
He went on to use cocaine, alcohol, acid, mescaline, mushrooms, methamphetamines and also served time in federal prison for drug trafficking. At the time of his arrest, he had been consistently using meth. “I was weighing about 120 pounds when the Feds got me,” he says. “I like to call it ‘federal intervention.’”
Now clean for over a decade, Gifford devotes his free time to helping recovering addicts.“We get clean and help others get clean,” he says. “That’s just what you do when you know the other side.”
A different approach
Despite the difficulties of creating a “drug free” America, the War on Drugs has had some positive impact.
In a debate over who is to blame for Mexico’s own drug war, former DEA admintrator Asa Hutchinson pointed out the importance of keeping the successes of the War on Drugs in perspective. “Since the late 1970s and early 1980s when we initiated strong effort in the fight against drugs, we have reduced overall drug consumption in the U.S. by 50 percent,” he said. “That is progress that represents saved lives.”
However, according to a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report, the U.S. is the world's largest consumer of Colombian cocaine and heroin and Mexican heroin and marijuana. It is also a major consumer of ecstasy and Mexican methamphetamine and serves as a money-laundering center for underground markets.
Currently, the U.S. also holds the world’s highest incarceration rates, which refutes acclaimed successes of the War on Drugs. Fifty-one percent of all inmates in federal prisons are there for drug related crimes.
“It can’t be expected for someone to get clean just through locking them up. Without some kind of treatment when they get out, it’s usually back to the vicious cycle,” Gifford says. “People with drug problems require getting taught a different way to think.”
Gifford suggests that providing more treatment options for drug law violators is essential to create a society that aims at being drug free. “Treatment can even be provided in prison, which has actually become more popular,” he says.
In Portugal, drug law violators are given the option of rehabilitation therapy or jail time. Although other parts of the world have found methods to implement policies that are geared more towards decriminalization and treatment, a long history of drug prohibition engraved in the American culture makes it unlikely that the War on Drugs will take a different route.
“The only way for this War on Drugs to come to an end would be for people in America to stop using drugs,” says Gifford. “Is that going to happen?” he asks, “No, that’s also part of the culture.”
With our southern neighbor recently waging its own war on drugs, the end to the War on Drugs in the U.S. is less likely to conclude any time soon, as Mexico’s drug wars are married to our own.
“It is a business,” says Gifford. “Supply and demand finds a way for any means to get to the end.”