<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
 English | Español September 2, 2014 | Issue #28


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What the People Are Saying

Merida Conference Attendees in their Own Words


By the Narco News Street Team

February 15, 2003

Kind Reader: Surely you must be wondering, “Who is in Mérida, getting to listen to all of these courageous and distinguished men and women speaking out, openly, for the first time in Mexico, against drug prohibition?”

We at the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism would not want our readers to be jealous of these lucky, and equally courageous, individuals from throughout América and Europe who have the good fortune to be in Mérida with us. But fear not—you’re getting total, trilingual coverage of all the main speakers for these four days of “Out from the Shadows: Ending Drug Prohibition in the 21st Century.”—our treat. And, from us on the J-school street team, you can also expect to hear the voices of those who thought they had just come to listen, starting right here, right now.

You see, even before the big speakers were speaking, before the big panelists were paneling, people were talking about Mexico’s first drug legalization summit. On a gorgeous evening in Mérida, without a shadow in sight, hundreds came together for the opening reception at the Hotel Misión. With microphones and backstage passes, the street team infiltrated the shmoozing crowd to begin to answer the question that you, kind reader, had for us at the very beginning: “Who is there, in Mérida, attending this unprecedented conference?”

Activists are there, in Mérida, attending this unprecedented conference—like Mexico City’s Jorge Hernandez Fenajero, a political writer involved with the Mexican Association of Cannabis Studies (AMECA). At the Hotel Misión, the street team encountered Jorge standing at the bar, speaking eagerly with friends from México, and spoke with him about his excitement and about the importance of “Out from the Shadows”:

“The most important thing [about the Mérida conference] is that it’s really the first of its kind. Right now, legalization is just another issue. But it is turning into something that cannot be ignored, I think.”

Jorge defined the struggle of drug policy reform and AMECA in broader terms—Mexico’s struggle to realize the values of civil liberty and democracy in the 21st century:

“It’s important to remember that these proposals require the rule of law. In Mexico we have only the rule of men. So really, the drug issue is a civil liberties issue. We have NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), a connection with the global world, and we have signed treaties of human rights, but we need to develop civil liberties. We are a country of 100 million people, but not many of them know or understand the laws. So this has to be an educational issue, as well.”

You may hear more from Jorge in the next several days, but on Wednesday evening we had to move on, and when you’re talking about drugs in Mexico, you can’t really move too far without running into the United States.

And so surely you want to know: “What were retired U.S. police officers Jack Cole and Howard Wooldridge, of New Jersey and Texas, doing in here in Mérida?”

With Howard in a ten gallon gringo sombrero and the two of them both wearing shirts that read “Ask this cop why the War on Drugs must end,” the street team was upon them immediately, while they still waited in line to register for “Out from the Shadows.” They are co-founders of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), represented in fifteen U.S. states and four countries. Jack introduced himself and his organization:

“I’m a retired detective. [LEAP] went public last July; its mission is to give voice to all the former and current members of law enforcement that feel the war on drugs is a dismal failure. The only way we can correct for all the horrors we have created is to end prohibition. The group had 5 members last July, now it’s up to 300.”

Narco News knew that you’d want to know whether there are other cops, perhaps in your hometown, who want to end drug prohibition. Jack says that most police officers don’t support the drug war, but they are torn because their livelihood depends on the criminalization of drugs…

“Virtually everyone I talk to on a personal level says they agree with me, that the war on drugs is a dismal failure. Now what they want to do from then on has a lot to do with how much money they make from it. And I’m not talking about corrupt money; a lot of cops make their living off the war on drugs, on overtime. We arrest 1.6 million people per year in the United States on drug violations.

“It’s not just the individual office; it’s the whole department. Jerry Oliver, the Detroit chief of police, said on national television three months ago that every police department in the United States can trace at least 20 percent of its budget directly back to the war on drugs. So if you just ended the war on drugs, that’s a terrible hit on the budget. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

“That’s why some cops, out of uniform, if they knew it wouldn’t get back to the department, essentially all of them would admit that its a total failure; it always has been, it always will be. 50 or 60 percent of them would say to end prohibition because its the right thing to do, but a significant minority would say ‘Yeah, but I might lose my job! It’s gonna hurt me! Let’s slow down a little bit!”

Does anyone else profit from the prohibition-aided prison-industrial complex, Officer Jack?

“I’ve been in contact with somebody who is in charge of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, and he says, “We support ending prohibition, knowing [however] that if it happens, half of our members will lose their jobs,” These lawyers will have to find a new profession, there wont be enough crime left to keep these defense attorneys going, its their bread and butter.

“The fact that 85 percent of burglaries are done by drug addicts is the bread and butter of alarm companies. If [ending prohibition means lower costs for drugs, and] you don’t have that many burglaries—who wants a house alarm that costs 50 bucks a month? There’s really no need for it. You’ve got lots of people with their fingers in the pie, going, ‘Well, this is a good thing for us.’ You’ve got Visa and MasterCard hiring guys in prison for 40 cents an hour as a customer service rep, because you got a lot of college educated people who get arrested for drugs. They are bright, intelligent people.”

And Howard, who worked as an officer for 24 years, is no less fatalistic about the War on Drugs’ future north of the border:

“I’ve worked every kind of narcotics there is, from street users to billion dollar heroin and cocaine rings, and I know it’s a failed policy. We’ve been there, we’ve busted these people, we know the absolute futility of this prohibition approach. The job of a police officer is to protect and serve, and that’s why we are interested in lessening incidents of death, disease, crime and drug addiction. And the war on drugs doesn’t do any of that; it makes all of those far worse.”

And would you believe, sirs and madams, that this former police officer believes ending the War on Drugs might lead to a little bit too much peace and quiet?

“You’ve got so many crimes that are committed by people who need the money for drugs. As a detective, about 80 or 85 percent of people breaking into houses were drug addicts who needed the money for the next fix. A huge percentage of our prostitutes are hooked on drugs and need the money for their drugs, and that’s why they become prostitutes, its either break into houses, steal cars, whatever you want to do. So straightforward drug arrests are only the tip of the iceberg. Studies show that 75 percent of all felony crime touches prohibition. Murder, armed robbery, car theft, home burglary, you name it, 75 percent touches the war on drugs…a lot of officers make a lot of money, on overtime and whatever else. If you ended the war on drugs you’d have a peace dividend…”

And what exactly is a peace dividend, officer?

“It’s similar to the end of the Cold War, when they laid off a million of our fighting men and women from the armed forces. Here you would have the same thing: You’d be laying off cops, the lieutenants would become sergeants, the sergeants would go back to being patrolmen, there would be less money in the budgets, everybody would come out with a little bit less. It would be a good thing for society, but for the individual officer, if you are taking a pay cut from lieutenant down to Sergeant, that’s going to hurt.

“Ending prohibition is akin to retooling a wartime economy to a peacetime economy, its very hard, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, you should still be doing it. We’re here to hear what the Latinos have to say about the problems.”

Kind reader, Jack and Howard had much, much more to share, but we, too, wanted to hear what the Latinos have to say about the problems.

The lovely Sara Contera, also of Mexico City’s AMECA, told Narco News she sees an information blockade keeping the people from making intelligent choices about drugs:

“I am part of [AMECA]. We have community meetings, talking to people about cannabis. Especially young people, who don’t know what cannabis does…

“Young people think a lot of things that are not true—that cannabis is bad and addictive, and generates violence. This is just misinformation on the part of the mass media. That is why people have erroneous concepts about them.”

So we had to wonder—is the Mexican government as responsible for spreading bad information as their neighbors in Washington DC?

“The [Mexican] government doesn’t really care—in public schools, they don’t hand out much information on the issue. They don’t tell students “it’s good” or “it’s bad”; they just don’t tell them anything. It’s the mass media that spreads negative information about drugs, and they include cannabis among them.”

The street team also interviewed Americans Mark and Jodi Fitt about the role players and forces most responsible for drug prohibition and the misinformation campaign that supports it. Jodi was interested in “Out From the Shadows” because she felt like it’s unfortunate that some people find substances that expand people’s consciousness so threatening.

“I’m here because I think that human beings have a basic right, in fact they have an imperative to explore their consciousness, when often includes altering it, and I think that at the core of a lot of the drug war at least in the United States is a fear of the phenomenon of large numbers of people altering their consciousness, exploring their consciousness, imagining the system that they have accepted through manipulated manufactured consent. If we are going to survive and move forward as a species, save ourselves while also inhabiting it, raising consciousness through certain substances is probably going to be the way it happens. And I think that the resistance by the powers-that-be shows that they think that might be true, too.”

But those are just theories, and Jodi told Narco News that as an American, she sees the need to learn from the people most heavily affected by worldwide drug prohibition:

“I haven’t been exposed to a lot of other cultures and people that have grown up in other political systems. In the United States, it’s pretty easy if you are not a person of color to not be as aware of these things: the drug war, the prison population, criminalization of youth. I’m hoping to hear from people that do have different governments, cultures, or mindsets that we in the United states aren’t exposed to.”

Mark also spoke to us about his desire to learn from Latin Americans about the impact of the drug war and alternatives to it:

¨I’m here to learn as much as I can about the drug war, from a more international perspective, and to see if there is anywhere I can be supportive in making the change that has to be made. I think the drug war goes to the core of controlling people, I think it goes to the core of organized criminal activity and what controls minorities and people who are on the outside. It’s a major tool being used to corrupt world governments.”

And what would ex-US Naval intelligence officer Sylvester Salcedo, have to say about what drives the prohibition mentality?

“What has been driving the current us drug policy has been the same over the years. When drug prohibition started in the United States, it was aimed towards minorities, Mexicans for marijuana, Asians for opium. The common theme is fear on the part of middle class America, things are getting upset, the social order is being disrupted and turned on its head. But the modern drug policy stems from president Nixon and the establishment of the DEA. When you think about measuring their effectiveness, you ask, is it working? And if you look at the drug issue in the United States as a scourge or a disease, it really hasn’t gone away. And if you have a doctor, you are going to have to fire them because they really haven’t provided a solution, by any sort of reasonable measurement. You can’t say you guys have stopped drugs from coming into the country, you cant say you guys have lowered or eliminated the addiction, and they can’t; they’re really in a no win situation. As a country we really have to step back and say do we want to fund money to an unworkable social policy, or do we want to rethink this?”

At the University Felipe Carrillo Puerto Theater on Thursday morning, Narco News also found Europeans who question the logic of the Drug War, and who challenge authentic journalists to defy empty definitions, like Christian Pontin, of Treviso, Italy:

“A quick and easy solution to this problem is not possible – we must change mentality. For instance, we abuse the word, “drug.” What is a “drug”? Anybody with even a little scientific understanding can produce something that could be considered a drug—through chemistry, through buying a legal product like glue, or through picking a mushroom. My point is that to change mentality, journalists must use the most current information and speak to people with precision.

“I don’t see enough European people here—only people from Latin America and the United States. In Italy we have a Forum Droga. But yes, I think this is important for Latin America. Production of “hard drugs” happens in Central and South America. And from my perception, people in Central and South America are not familiar with alternatives [to prohibition]—they don’t speak enough about other solutions.”

In Mérida, you may be surprised to hear, we even have lawyers who are challenging themselves to fight for drug policy change, sacrificing the comfort and security of cushy corporate jobs, like Curtis Kaiser, of Seal Beach, California. On opening night, Curtis sat with his mother Andrea, a schoolteacher in Los Angeles for 30 years, whom he’d convinced to attend “Out from the Shadows” to better understand the legalization movement and his decision to join it:

“I’ve been working in Irvine, California, for the last three years as a lawyer. Now I’m headed to Sacramento to work as a policy analyst for Drug Policy Alliance. [Working for the private company in Irvine] I could understand how some people are trapped by inertia. They construct a lifestyle around what they earn—any car they want, a big house—and it restricts them. But I’ve lived according to my means and I’m glad to be starting something more meaningful.

“I think that lobbyists pushing for policy change are key, but that you also need the ‘fringe’ element—the more radical ones—for their heart. Both are important. Something I said in my interview [for the Drug Policy Alliance position] was that it’s important to stay a step ahead of the public—like the Nevada Question 9 attempt—but not too far.”

Silvia Inchaurraga of the Argentina Harm Reduction Society, told Narco News that punitive drug laws reinforce stereotypes of class and race. While sitting on the steps University of Yucatan’s Felipe Carrillo Puerte Theater, following the first full day of “Out from the Shadows,” she spoke to the street team about facing a bleak reality with courage and resolve:

“I participated in a similar conference, which united people concerned with drug policy. Most recently, in December, I was part of the Latin American delegation at the National Harm Reduction Conference in Seattle [Washington].

“To support harm reduction does not mean encouraging drug use; it means that even though we cannot change the drug policy tomorrow, we must work for treatment—friendly, humanistic treatment—and access to clean needles. This is not just a health issue, however. We are looking for creative solutions, because legalization will not happen tomorrow.

“In Argentina, jails are for poor people, people who are excluded. Immigrants [from other South American countries] are seen as a problem—it’s a social belief—and drugs serve to continue this racism.”

Solidad Pacheco, as a Merida anthropologist, has had the opportunity to investigate drug issues as they pertain to youth culture, and based on her studies of human sociology, has an inside view into the things that compel humans to act in certain ways:

“I believe that legalization is good. I work in statistics, and there I researched about youth consumption of drugs. The number is really small as compared to the whole population. I tell you this because today you can see drugs being distributed nearby schools. I think that legalizing drugs will have a positive effect, because humans are tempted to consume things that are prohibited, and when things are not prohibited, then they stop being a temptation.”

For many of the indigenous people of Latin America, drug legalization is about preserving a sacred tradition that is currently being raped by their governments. Don Andres Vazquez de Santiago is an elder of the Mexican National Congress and, at 93, a revered indigenous leader, who sees the conference as a way to bring divided peoples together:

“If we don’t unite in order to achieve what we have been fighting for all these years, we will not get anywhere. Governments and important institutions are organized; so, we must also be organized.”

This report from the Narco News Street Team includes interviews by Patrick “Murph” McMahon, Andrew Stelzer, Sunny Angulo, and Andrea Arenas.

Full Disclosure: The author wishes to acknowledge the material assistance, encouragement, and guidance, of The Narco News Bulletin, The Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, publisher Al Giordano and the rest of the faculty, and of the Tides Foundation. Narco News is a co-sponsor and funder of the international drug legalization summit, “OUT FROM THE SHADOWS: Ending Prohibition in the 21st Century,” in Mérida, Yucatán, and is wholly responsible for the School of Authentic Journalism whose philosophy and methodology were employed in the creation of this report. The writing, the opinions expressed, and the conclusions reached, if any, are solely those of the author.

Apertura total: El autor desea reconocer la asistencia material, el ánimo y la guía de The Narco News Bulletin, La Escuela de Narco News de Periodismo Auténtico, su Director General Al Giordano y el resto del profesorado, y de la Fundación Tides. Narco News es copatrocinador y financiador del encuentro internacional sobre legalización de las drogas “Saliendo de las sombras: terminando con la prohibición a las drogas en el siglo XXI” en Mérida, Yucatán, y es completamente responsable por la Escuela de Periodismo Auténtico, cuya filosofía y metodología fueron empleadas en la elaboración de esta nota. La escritura, las opiniones expresadas y las conclusiones alcanzadas, si las hay, son de exclusiva responsabilidad del autor

Abertura Total: O autor deseja reconhecer o material de apoio, o propósito e o guia do Boletim Narco News. a Escola de Jornalismo Autêntico, o editor Al Giordano, o restante de professores e a Fundaçáo Tides. Narco News é co-patrocinador e financiador do encontro sobre a legalizaçao das drogas Saindo das Sombras: terminando com a proibiçao das drogas no século XXI em Mérida, Yucatan, e é completamente responsável pela Escola de Jornalismo Autêntico, cuja filosofia e metodologia foram implantadas na elaboraçao desta reportagem. O texto, as opinioes expressadas e as conclusoes alcançadas, se houver, sao de responsabilidade do autor.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America