An old university paper of mine written about the first mass hysteria that I became interested in - the drug war:
An analysis of the Texas War on Drugs in an attempt to establish a framework for comprehensive state-level analysis of the drug war.
The war on drugs is often put in a national or global context, but is rarely thoroughly evaluated at the state or local level “since federal laws apply to all state and local jurisdictions” (Sabet 1.) Due to this federal legislation that guides with the most authority what Republican Texas’ US House Representative Ron Paul calls America’s “second” prohibition (implying its imminent failure), a state or local outlook is viewed as less important or impractical by many researchers, politicians and the media (Paul 228.)
This stands at odds with the fact that state and local government exerts the most financial authority over the drug war and the fact that “most of the decisions leading to harsher punishment and prison expansion were made by state legislatures” (Campbell 633.) According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) “local spending represented just over half (51%) of total government expenditures on justice. State spending accounted for a third (33%) and federal spending represented a sixth (16%)” (BJS 2011.)
Texas’ drug war statistics, events and research will be emphasized as this paper examines Texas’ drug war issues in order to help reconcile the overwhelmingly local financial responsibility for the drug war with the lack of framing and analysis of the drug war as a state and local issue. Though this paper is not comprehensive in scope and limited in depth, many of the most important drug war issues facing Texas will be addressed in the hope of building a foundation and framework for thoroughly addressing the war on drugs at a more local level in future studies. Important Texas drug war issues to be discussed include militarization of the police force, the role of Mexico in Texas’ drug war, the politics and other social forces that effect drug legislation, Texas’ #1 ranking for state prison population and alternatives to the criminal punishment of drug addicts in Texas. This paper will also include a brief case study of the drug war in Houston due to the proximity of the audience.
In writing this paper, the author hopes to utilize the naturally greater interest people have in localized issues (in which they likely feel they have more control over) to help Texans understand the war on drugs.
This localizing emphasis is especially important for Texas due to its position as the prison capital of the world’s prison capital (USA), with about 154,000 prisoners (Levin 2011.) Texas currently has the highest prison population per capita of any state and its non-violent (mostly drug users) offender population alone exceeds the United Kingdom’s entire prison population (Levin 2011.) This is comparable to the“450,000 of the more than 2 million inmates (45%) in state and federal prison (who) are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses” which to return to the European comparison, is “more people than the European Union, an entity with 100 million more people than the United States, has in prison for all crimes combined” (Smith 2006.)
Of Texas’ 150,000+ prisoners, “there are 16,188 inmates in Texas state lockups due to a drug possession conviction, which translates into a biennial cost to Texas taxpayers of $600.2 million” (Levin 2011.)
Many may be skeptical of such statistics, but a quick search on the Texas Tribune’s prisoner database shows many such examples of how drug possession can lead to long, costly prison sentences. Three-strike laws, “drug free zone” laws and other factors come into play for inmates such as Sam Henry Davis, who is serving 50 years for possession of between 2 to 4 ounces of marijuana in a drug-free zone (Texas Tribune.)
70 year old Charles Robert Scalf is currently serving a life sentence for possession of between 5 and 50 pounds of marijuana, with only one previous criminal conviction - for marijuana possession (Texas Tribune.) Scalf is one of the 4,200 Texas inmates age 61 or older who should probably be considered for a “geriatric release policy… that utilizes GPS and nursing homes” (Levin 2011.) By implementing such a program “taxpayers could save tens of millions of dollars without endangering public safety, as elderly inmates have a nominal recidivism rate” (Levin 2011.)
The three strike law struck down any hope of Kervin Eugene Bryant having a productive, tax-paying life after he received a life sentence for possession of between 4 ounces and 5 pounds of marijuana, his third victimless felony charge (Texas Tribune.)
The costs of drug cases aren’t measurable only in terms of incarceration – they also cost taxpayers through various forms of administration of justice – from filing paperwork to time consuming coordination between various agencies. There were 125,956 drug possession and 14,630 sales and manufacturing cases in Texas in 2010 – each requiring the man hours of criminal justice officials (TX DPS.)
Besides consuming valuable man hours of criminal justice officials who could be focusing on crimes with victims, the drug war creates “threats to potential medicines such as marijuana, a marginalization of ‘normal’ users, loss of potential tax revenue, and no employee protections for those whose employment is provided by the illicit drug trade” (Robinson 178.)
Many Texans surely don’t care about the drug war and feel it doesn’t affect them, but if they saw more statistics like “the economic cost of substance abuse in Texas for 2007 is estimated at $33.4 billion including lost productivity, crime and the criminal justice system, premature death and morbidity, and the cost of substance abuse prevention and treatment” hopefully they would begin to realize that drugs are everyone’s problem and the drug war is probably the biggest part of the drug problem (DSHS 2009.)
Why is Texas #1? Racism, Tough Politics, Sensational Media and Geography
The state’s reputation for being rough and tough could be partly to blame for its immense prison population. One author cites various forms of evidence, such as Texas’ heroes being “martyrs or killers, usually both” (Perkinson 19.) The author also explains how, towards the end of the civil-rights era, a “new breed of politician” discovered that racialized crime – such as certain kinds of drug use - “galvanized white voters” (Perkinson 6.)
This is in continuity with the blatantly racist and largely southern origins of the drug war. Marijuana “was banned in the 1930s as a way of criminalizing the tens of thousands of Mexican migrant farm workers who entered the Southwest in search of work” (Cohen 57.) Texas’ southern-border location gave it a head start in the drug war.
“First to note the use of the drug (marijuana) were El Paso law enforcement officials who quickly secured a local ordinance in 1914 banning sale and possession of the drug” (NCMDA 1972.) This may have been the first drug prohibition law in America, and is another good partial explanation of why Texas currently has the highest prison population in America.
It should be noted that cocaine and opium share a similar story. “Urban police and civic leaders in the New South generated a moral panic over the casual use of cocaine among urban blacks” (Cohen 56.)
“The nation's first drug laws had appeared in San Francisco in the 1870s, unsuccessfully prohibiting whites from patronizing opium dens in Chinatown lest some white woman should fall into the hands of the yellow peril” (Cohen 56.)
It is difficult to deny the endurance of the racial component of the drug war when confronted with the fact that “African American males, who in the 1970s were only 9% of the prison population, after harsher sentencing largely fueled by the drug trade, are now 62%” (Smith 2006.)
The effects of this historical racism can still be seen in modern Texas prison population demographics. 36.4% of current Texas prison inmates are black (Texas Tribune.) Black people represented only 11.8% of Texans in the 2010 census, which does not include prisoners, meaning they are overrepresented in prison by over 300% (Census.) Hispanics are actually underrepresented with 37.6% of the Texas population and only 32.8% of the prison population, but still endure much higher rates of incarceration than whites, amongst other things.
“Latinos are almost twice as likely as Whites to be incarcerated (in Texas)…“a larger share of Latinos are incarcerated are in state prisons versus state jails, where sentences tend to be shorter, and are institutions more geared to treatment than punishment” and “Latino men and women are significantly less likely than others to use alcohol, and nationwide, have been shown to have the same rate of alcohol related traffic automobile accidents, Latinos constitute 2 in 5 Texas prisoners incarcerated (for DWI)” (Justice Policy Institute 3-4.)
Though Texas’ historic racism likely plays a part in these statistics, being next door to Mexico, who supplies much, if not most, of America’s marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine, could also be a large factor in Texas’ high Latino inmate population. “Mexican Americans and others living near the U.S./Mexico border having more direct access to marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine sources compared to those in other regions” (Valdez 894.) This is due to their having “an advantage compared to others in that they share a common language and ethnic background with drug wholesalers in Mexico's interior and border regions” (Valdez 895.) This increased capability for Mexican-Americans to get into the drug trade and eventually become another prisoner of the war on drugs is likely partially to blame for their controversial prison rate.
The politics of race and being tough on crime had other supporters besides politicians. Texas Governor Clements’ administration implemented “a strategy aimed at building a political coalition that could threaten Democratic dominance by focusing on crime and punishment” in 1980 (Campbell 642.) Clements’ general counsel told the governor “I see no downside to you politically in backing these law enforcement issues that will gain you the respect and appreciation of almost everyone connected with law enforcement throughout the state, literally touching every local city council, commissioners court, district attorney’s office, etc., all principally democrats” (Campbell 642.)
Though this support still revolves around politicians, it stemmed largely from “the political activism of law enforcement groups generally and prosecutors in particular. Law enforcement groups played an important role in shaping crime legislation and stirring support for policies that prioritized prisons and harsher punishments” (Campbell 632.)
Police could also be seen as “helping bridge the gap between often obscure state politics, and the local voters who might turn to these representatives to make sense of complex political issues associated with crime” (Campbell 635.)
This heavy reliance on police and others who benefit so greatly from the war on drugs, also extended to Clements’ Formation of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Criminal Justice (BRC) in July 1982.
“It was headed by a corporate executive from Dallas, and included five lawmakers, five business leaders, two scholars, two judges, one lawyer, one prosecutor, and two law enforcement officers,” excluding “representatives of high-crime communities” with the effect of the conversation being “framed explicitly in terms of addressing prison overcrowding by recommending prison expansion (Campbell 646.)
Besides politicians and the law enforcement community, the media also has some share of the blame for Texas’ tough on crime politics.
Governor White (1983-1987) “utilized alternatives that briefly lowered and stabilized the state’s prison population” (Campbell 649.) Despite this coinciding with “the first decline in serious crime in the state in years…the White administration was harshly criticized in the press, where several of the state’s largest newspapers ran exposés and editorials decrying early release and calling for prison expansion” (Campbell 649.)
To be fair, things have changed somewhat in the media since then. This could reflect a change in public opinion – which media moguls must contend with. The majority of Americans now support legalizing marijuana according to a recent Gallup Poll (Newport 2011.)
The Houston Chronicle called for a debate on legalization in 2009, saying “the day is coming when the country must look seriously at ways to rein in the multibillion-dollar market that enriches the drug lords while filling American prisons with inmates. This means reassessing the generation-long national drug war, and should include debate on the merits and pitfalls of legalization of drugs” (Houston Chronicle 2009.) Despite this, the effects of the media’s past drug war hysteria remain.
A concise summary of the main components involved in Texas’ drug war (and all others) is that “drug policies result from at least three factors: political opportunism; media profit maximization; and desire among criminal justice professionals to increase their spheres of influence” (Robinson 11.)
Mexico and police militarization
Mexico has recently become a very big name in the global war on drugs. Due to its proximity and its recent escalation into a drug war that is really akin to a war, Mexico also plays a large part in Texas’ drug war. Despite El Paso being “named the city with the lowest crime rate in the United States with a population of over 500,000 residents,” Juarez City – right across the Texas-Mexico border – is the considered by many to be the deadliest city in the world (KVIA.com 2010.) Juarez’ murder rate has been reported at 165 deaths per 100,000 residents—nearly four times higher than in Baghdad” (Kellner 37.) The death toll in 2010 alone was over 15,000 people – about 5 times as high as the death toll from the 9/11 attacks (Llana 2011.)
Mexico’s violence and mayhem, which started when President Calderon militarized his police force in 2006 in a strong effort to topple drug cartels, has bled across the border in many forms. Some of the effects are subtle, such as UT pulling all of its students from Mexico's Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education due to a State Department travel advisory warning of growing violence throughout the country (Boulard 2010.)
Mexico’s violence is also bringing “thousands of students suffering from emotional troubles not unlike those endured by soldiers returning from battle” to Texas schools as families flee the warzone. (FoxNews 2011) “About 115,000 Mexicans have taken refuge in the United States since violence spiked in their country in 2006” and as a result of the many trauma cases of the children who fled “some districts have started offering the type of classes and counseling more common to the military” and school counselors find themselves explaining to “two siblings who had bullets lodged inside them why doctors refused to take out the slugs and instead waited for their bodies to push them out” (FoxNews 2011.)
Some of the Mexican drug war’s largest effects on the Texas drug war don’t stem from its violence, but rather its drug profits. “Mexican and Colombian DTOs (drug trade organizations) generate, remove, and launder between $18 billion and $39 billion in wholesale drug proceeds annually” and with such a great amount of money at stake, it is easy to see how the police might justify exceptional measures in dealing with the traffickers and why President Bush allocated “$1.4 billion in funds over three years appropriated under the so-called Merida Initiative... aimed at buttressing border, maritime, and air control from the U.S. southern border to Panama” (Kellner 37.) This kind of government response may explain why increased drug-related earnings increased drug-related violence (Kellner 30.) The more money that is at stake, the more the government will fight to take it and the cartels will fight to keep it. The more the government increases its size, the more it obviously must rely on large enforcements units - such as can only be found in the military.
The scale of this war on drugs has lead to Texas investing heavily in police militarization. This military mindset has lead to a “usurpation of civil authority—the destruction of the rule of civil law—which is the ultimate and real danger posed by use of the military in law enforcement” (Lynch 71.) The ATF illegally borrowed “helicopters from the Texas National Guard. (Texas law allows the use of Texas National Guard helicopters for law enforcement only when there is a drug nexus.)” (Lynch 71.) Despite the military being prohibited from directly participating in law enforcement “military personnel (such as the 10th Special Forces Group in Texas in 1993, or the Navy SEALS in Los Angeles in 1989) are reported to have participated in drug raids” (Lynch 74.)
In 1997 a US Marine anti-drug patrol killed a goat herder along the Mexican border, leading to a $1.9 million wrongful death lawsuit settlement (Carpenter 4.)
This police/military ambiguity leads not only to death, but also wasteful spending – such as the comical “$2.9 million federal grant to the Texas National Guard to have guard members disguise themselves as cactus plants to gather intelligence on drug-trafficking routes across the Rio Grande border” (Carpenter 196.)
Despite Mexico’s problems, they recently rejected Perry’s campaign idea of possibly sending troops to help Mexico fight the drug cartels. (Shoicet 2011)
Even more local – The Houston drug war
Houston serves as a good brief case study of the Texas drug war due to a few factors. Houston’s Lee Brown was chief of Houston police for 10 years, Houston’s first black mayor, and drug czar for President Clinton, and so offers an interesting mindset for examination.
Due to the racial component of the drug war and his southern origins, it is surprising, but Brown chose to emphasize treatment as drug czar. Perhaps it was his Masters in Sociology that made Brown say that "Drug use is up, yet Congress is cutting the funds for the prevention activities for kids that we know work” while dealing with politics as the US drug czar (Deseran 874.) Brown’s greatest emphasis was put on “the government's efforts to reduce the demand for illegal drugs…(by) concerted efforts of the criminal justice and health care systems (that)…focus on the treatment of addicts and heavy users” (Keigher 71-74.) This shows an interesting departure from the racial and political expectations of the south.
Interestingly, despite the billions being spent to secure the southern border, Houston is a High Intensity Drug Traffic Area (HIDTA.) “Mexican DTOs are the most pervasive organizational threat to the Houston HIDTA region. The proximity of their operations to the U.S.–Mexico border and their access to major drug market areas throughout the United States have enabled Mexican DTOs to emerge as the predominant traffickers in the HIDTA region.” (NDIC 5) The situation seems inevitable with the economics of supply and demand pulling poor Mexicans into the drug trade and ensuring a thriving market. The $384 million Texas received in 2010 for drug use reduction efforts from the federal government is being spent wisely if it is truly for reducing demand since the proximity of Mexico to US will always allow an easy supply (NDIC 7.)
To get as local as possible, the University of Houston will also be briefly examined. The term “war on drugs” was recently denounced by Gil Kerlikowske – Obama’s drug czar – who said "We're not at war with people in this country" (Fields 2011.)Despite this, use of the language persists, even in more liberal places in Texas – such as the University of Houston. UH’s Wellness Center is a member of “Texans' War on Drugs” and shows students one sided propaganda in the form of powerpoint presentations, which say marijuana “can be a major factor in causing some cancers since a marijuana cigarette has more carcinogens than regular cigarettes” (University of Houston 2011.) The Center says this without any citations and without mentioning that “the largest study of its kind…unexpectedly concluded that smoking marijuana, even regularly and heavily, does not lead to lung cancer” (Kaufman 2006.)
Then, the Wellness Center document says “There is no scientific evidence that one drug leads to another. However SAMHSA survey found that adolescents between ages 12-17 who use it weekly are nine times more likely to experiment with other drugs” thereby leaving uneducated readers with the obvious conclusion that it must be a “gateway drug” – a shallow and widely rejected theory that confuses correlation and causation. This serves as a good example of the entrenchment and prevalence of the drug war and its various myths in even liberal pockets of Texas, but it should also be mentioned that there are courses being taught at UH that rely on reliable data from books like “Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics” (University of Houston 2011.)
Throughout Texas, people are divided on this issue. Texas Congressman Ron Paul introduced a bill to legalize marijuana to the Congress recently, and fellow Texas Congressman Lamar Smith promised it wouldn’t even be considered. (LA Times 2011.) Though such division may be frustrating, it is much better than nearly everyone being on the unscientific side of the issue, as it seemed to be for so long.
The above mentioned political and social forces are clearly largely to blame for the expansion of prisons and the corresponding filling of them with drug users. What also needs to be considered, though, is what were the alternatives?
Alternatives to war and interstate drug policy comparisons
It was previously mentioned that Governor White had success with alternatives to incarceration, only to be harshly criticized by Texas’ media, but “no history of rehabilitation existed to serve as an alternative model or to provide evidence that other crime-control policies might be effective” (Campbell 649.)
In 2007, “Texas faced a projected prison population increase of up to 17,000 inmates in just five years” and instead of spending “nearly $2 billion on new prison construction and operations to accommodate this growth, policy makers reinvested a fraction of this amount—$241 million—in a network of residential and community-based treatment and diversion programs” (Pew Center on the States (PCS) 2010.)
This smart investment had many positive effects – including the expansion of sentencing options, reducing the prison population, and saving up to a billion dollars for Texas tax payers (PCS 2010.) This trend, though exceptional for tough-on-crime Texas, fits in with America’s overall state prison population trend. 2010 was “the first year-to-year drop in the state prison population since 1972” – nearly 40 years (PCS 2010.)
The trend also doesn’t mean there is an “assurance that the new diversion capacity will be fully utilized by prosecutors and judges. In fact, there are currently about 1,000 empty beds in Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facilities (SAFPFs)” (Levin 2011.)
Alternatives to incarceration should be coupled with alternative law enforcement strategies or legislation since at least one study indicates that “non-drug crime rates may decline because law enforcement resources may be directed against other criminal activity when marijuana arrests are given a lower priority” (Shephard 2007.)
So much could also be done with the $50 billion being spent on corrections by states annually – a portion of the budget that “has outpaced (in) budget increases nearly all other essential government services” in the past 20 years – largely due to the drug war (Petersilia 2.) Promisingly, “several private lockups in the state… (are) facing pressure from falling incarceration rates” even to the extent that they are trying to bring in prisoners from California (Williamson 2011.)
The drug war will never be able to halt the abuse of mind altering chemicals because they are nearly ubiquitous. Even cough medicine had 3,421 cases of abuse ingestion from 2000-2009 in Texas (Forrester 2011.) Unstudied and potentially dangerous drugs are emerging from across the globe that are replacing relatively well studied and harmless drugs like marijuana. Substances like K2 – a synthetic cannabanoid sprayed onto incense has caused 555 calls to the Texas Poison Control Center “in 2010, and the number of calls has been increasing each month since then” (Stutz 2011.)
This paper has explored the Texan drug war in order to help localize what is disproportionately analyzed and framed as a national or global issue. In doing so, there has been a high reliance on non-scholarly sources, including the Texas Tribune’s prisoner database and news articles – which might be excused due to the fact that “the richest, most in-depth accounts of drug trafficking are provided by journalists” and due to much state-level data being lacking due to the aforementioned national/global emphasis (Campbell 37.)
Though this paper may not be extremely comprehensive or focused, the author hopes that the novel approach to drug war analysis may help further the development of analysis and portrayal of the drug war as a local issue and, perhaps someday a personal, medical issue. Letting those who pay the least for the war on drugs have the most authority over it makes as much economic sense as letting the drug war continue to funnel billions of untaxed dollars into drug kingpins’ purses. Only after we reconcile this discrepancy, and realize that we can’t lock up the approximately 6% of Texans who used an illegal drug in the past month, canwe begin to address the drug war appropriately (ONDCP 2010.)
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