Sean Philpott-Jones: Penning A Solution To The War On Drugs

Jan 14, 2016

After nearly six months on the run, Joaquin Guzman Loera -- the Mexican drug lord known as "El Chapo" -- was recaptured by Mexican authorities. He is now back in the prison from which he made his daring escape, awaiting extradition to the United States to face charges of drug trafficking and murder.

Interestingly enough, El Chapo’s apprehension was both aided and hindered by two celebrities, Oscar-winning American actor Sean Penn and Mexican telenovela starlet Kate del Castillo. In October, Mr. Penn travelled to Mexico for a secret meeting and interview with the infamous drug lord. At the time, Mexican law enforcement agents delayed a scheduled raid of El Chapo’s hideout in order to protect the safety of Mr. Penn and Ms. del Castillo, giving him time to escape. However, because of continued communication between El Chapo and the two actors – fueled by the drug lord’s narcissistic desire to have a movie made about his life – Mexican authorities were later able to track and capture him.

While Mr. Penn and Ms. del Castillo’s actions may not be illegal, in my opinion they certainly were unethical. More importantly, after reading Mr. Penn’s interview with El Chapo in Rolling Stone this morning, I am struck by how foolish and naïve the actor is. While paying lip service to the many law enforcement officers killed by El Chapo and other narcotics traffickers, Sean Penn nevertheless idolizes the drug lord, going so far as to justify his interview by saying, “I'm drawn to explore what may be inconsistent with the portrayals our government and media brand upon their declared enemies.”

Let us not forget that drug lords like El Chapo, both here in the US and overseas, are directly responsible for hundreds of murders and indirectly responsible for thousands of deaths associated with narcotics trafficking and the rampant use of illicit drugs. That said, I hope the controversy over the Rolling Stone interview and the pending trial of El Chapo leads us to consider a bigger issue: the failure of the so-called War on Drugs.

Since then-President Nixon first declared a war on drug use in 1971, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have spent hundreds of billions of dollars combating drug use. But despite the money spent, true victories in the war are few and far between. Even when a large-scale drug lord like El Chapo is captured, he and his organized crime syndicate are quickly replaced by an even more ruthless gang of drug dealers. The killings continue unabated and there is but a short-lived dip in the amount of illicit narcotics flowing into the US.

Moreover, in addition to the billions of dollars spent hunting drug traffickers like El Chapo abroad, the government also spends billions of dollars annually imprisoning those who sell or use drugs here in the US. Because of the desire of our elected officials to appear tough on crime, those convicted of even minor drug-related offenses are sentenced to decades (or even life) behind bars. For example, almost half of all of the inmates in the federal prison system are there for nonviolent drug-related offenses, with the leading drug involved being marijuana. Since the start of the War on Drugs, the number of Americans in prison for selling or possessing narcotics has increased ten-fold yet our drug epidemic remains unchecked

Not only are the economic and political costs astronomical, the social impact on many communities – particularly inner-city neighborhoods and communities of color -- has been devastating. Much of the hostility of these communities towards law enforcement agencies (currently at a boiling point following police shootings of young African-American men like Michael Brown and Tamir Rice) can be traced back to the War on Drugs and the subsequent militarization of the police.

No wonder then that many top law enforcement officials, including the police chiefs of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston, are beginning to decry our current approach to dealing with illegal drug use. One such group of police chiefs, known as Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, is calling for reforms in our current judicial approach. Specifically, they want to reclassify many drug-related crimes from felonies to misdemeanors as well as reduce or remove mandatory sentencing minimums; a 19-year-old arrested for possessing a small amount of heroin for personal use will no longer be sentenced to 3-to-5 years in a state penitentiary, but will instead be referred to a substance abuse program.

While this is a good start, I wonder if reforming our judicial system is enough. Perhaps it’s time to have a national dialogue about illegal drugs and their use, including considering proposals to legalize some recreational drug use (as has been done for marijuana in four states and the District of Columbia). Creating a legalized yet highly regulated market might not only address the problem of drug trafficking and violence, but the tax revenues could provide a much needed stream of revenue to support substance abuse programs. In addition, legalizing some recreational drug use would put cartels run by vicious criminals like El Chapo out of business; one study found key drug traffickers like Mexico’s notorious Sinaola cartel would lose more than half of their annual income if the US simply legalized the use of relatively benign drugs like marijuana.

America has a serious drug problem, but it is clear after over four decades that our current approach has failed. The War on Drugs is simply bad policy, both economically and politically. As hard as it is for Americans to concede, it’s time for us to give up this losing strategy and look at other ways of combating the problem of drug use at home and abroad. 

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Dr. Sean Philpott-Jones is Director of the Bioethics Program at Union Graduate College-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Schenectady, New York. He is also Director of Union Graduate College's Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership, and Project Director of its two NIH-funded research ethics training programs in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin.

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