EL PASO, Texas -- It's been called the U.S. war on drugs -- a tough-minded government policy that for decades has targeted traffickers and addicts with prosecution and punishment.
But that policy came into question last week during a conference that brought together an unusually broad grouping of policymakers, academics and community activists from Mexico and the United States.
Instead of discussing how to capture more drug lords, seize bigger caches of weapons and further beef up border security, they proposed alternatives such as creating social programs to raise the quality of life for impoverished Mexicans vulnerable to joining the drug trade. They also advocated for comprehensive programs to prevent and treat drug addiction on both sides of the border, expand needle-exchange programs and decriminalize the use of marijuana so it can be better regulated.
The conference was held in El Paso, Texas, which has a close-up view of the daunting battle against drug trafficking. This city sits side by side with Mexico's Ciudad Juarez, where warfare among rival drug organizations has led to a record homicide rate.
About 3,200 people have been killed there during the past 20 months. Much of that toll is the result of the drug groups competing to control a major smuggling corridor to the United States, which has the world's largest demand for illegal drugs.
It seems that we supply the dead, and the United States (supplies) the drug consumers," said Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose' Reyes Ferriz, who helped open the conference at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Beto O'Rourke, an El Paso councilman, called for major changes.
We have a front-row seat to a failed policy," O'Rourke said. "There are a lot of things we can do differently, and one of the things is pursue a model of decriminalization of some drugs."
At the conference, the staunchest defender of the U.S. federal government's drug-enforcement strategy was Anthony Placido, head of intelligence for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Placido said groups that traffic in illicit drugs must be confronted aggressively.
It's about mind-altering substances that destroy human life, that destroy societies, families and create the violence that we see a couple of blocks away," Placido said. "Law enforcement will never be the total response to this problem, but it must be part of the answer."
President Richard M. Nixon called for a national drug policy in a special message to Congress in 1969 and officially declared a "war on drugs" in 1971. Historian David Courtwright dates the increasingly enforcement-oriented approach to 1973, when passage of anti-drug legislation in New York state and a series of subsequent federal laws and amendments led to the Reagan-era drug war of the 1980s.
Politicians found that voters responded much more strongly to the punitive dimension," Courtwright said.
President Barack Obama's administration has sought to distance itself from the "war on drugs" label. But U.S. regulations against illicit drugs remain "much more punitive than those of the industrial nations to which we compare ourselves," said Courtwright, who teaches at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
The U.S. drug market puts between $25 billion and $35 billion of profits in Mexican drug cartels' pockets each year, according to a 2007 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Overall use of illicit drugs in the United States has remained stable since 2002, though methamphetamine abuse has dropped, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The idea for this week's conference emerged after El Paso Mayor John Cook vetoed a City Council resolution condemning the violence in Ciudad Juarez and urging "an honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition of narcotics."
All eight members of the council had approved the resolution. Four of them switched their votes during a bid to override the veto after being told by Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, that support for the measure could jeopardize federal funding for their city, one of the poorest in the United States.
The point of the conference was "to do something different -- to build constituencies for change," said Dr. Kathleen Staudt, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at El Paso and chairwoman of the event's planning committee.
Some participants said just being able to hold a public discussion on touchy subjects such as drug legalization marked a step forward.
Especially in policy circles, but even in academia . . . it's been taboo to talk about this. People are reluctant to take on the dominant orthodoxy about drugs," said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.
Speakers highlighted moves toward decriminalization by governments of countries such as Portugal and the Netherlands. In Switzerland, they said, a heroin prescription program for hard-core users has led to a reduction in crime. This year, Mexico adopted a law that emphasizes treatment rather than prosecution for those caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs.
Let's face the fact that the drugs are here to stay," said James P. Gray, a retired Orange County Superior Court judge known for his criticism of U.S. drug policy. "We cannot repeal the law of supply and demand."
For one conference session, participants traveled to Ciudad Juarez to hear from Sergio Fajardo, former mayor of Medellin, Colombia.
Fajardo, now running for his country's presidency, was invited to deliver his "From Fear to Hope" lecture by the civic group Plan Estrategico de Juarez. He said building high-quality schools and community centers in Medellin's poorest neighborhoods was key to reducing the grip of crime and drugs during his tenure.
Education is the motor of social transformation," Fajardo told a crowd of about 2,000 people. "Violence creates fear, and fear leaves us closed off and isolated."
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.