On World Refugee Day, this blog looks at how America's war on drugs has displaced Mexicans from their homes
Over the past five and a half years the war on drugs in Mexico has been transformed from figurative to literal. And just like any other armed conflict, some innocent bystanders are killed and others are fleeing from their homes to get themselves out of danger.
Following a contested election result, President Calderón launched headlong into a military offensive against the cartels just days after taking office in December 2006. His plan to counter the traffickers badly backfired, and the number of people killed in the ensuing violence recently ticked over past the 55,000 mark, most of them in the northern border cities such as Ciudad Juárez – a principal supply route for the US drug market that stands right alongside the Texan city of El Paso on the Río Grande.
The authorities claim that 90% of victims are in some way connected with the cartels, whose reach is sombrero-brim wide. It's hard to tell for sure. In this reinvented wild west the banditos are issuing the sheriffs' badges, and, with Madame Justice's scales so heavily tilted under the weight of incompetence and corruption, as the murder rate has increased the number of successful prosecutions has hit bottom – only one percent of crimes lead to a conviction.
Amid general lawlessness and the occasional atrocity, a growing number of people have concluded that they can no longer stay where they are if it means living their lives in fear. Around 200,000 of them are thought to have left northern Mexico, half moving to more tranquil parts of their own country and the rest crossing the border into the US. For the former group it may not be long before blood is once again lapping at their ankles as cartel violence starts to flood the rest of Mexico. Even once-popular tourist destinations are affected, and fewer American college kids are now spending their spring breaks going loco in Acapulco. Those seeking refuge with their northern neighbour, meanwhile, will quickly find that the law is not on their side: asylum is usually only granted to people being systematically targeted on grounds such as race and faith. Applications have almost doubled from slightly more than 3000 in 2007 to 6000 in 2011, but 98% of them are denied.
A small number still get through with the help of NGOs, some of which are receiving regular requests from Mexican citizens who were quietly building moderately successful lives until getting caught up in cartel violence. Others avoid the formal process entirely. Rich Mexicans can simply get greencards for greenbacks: investor visas are issued to those putting $50,000 or more into American businesses.1 Others resort to crossing an increasingly heavily guarded border ex officio, dodging Predator drones and self-appointed neo-Nazi militias on their way. On top of man-made obstacles, the large number of cities on the US side of the line that have been walled off to outsiders means that the journey often ends with trekking through a scorching desert as well. One organisation based in Tucson estimates that the past six years have seen more than 1000 people die in the attempt in Arizona alone.
The US has shut their gates on a people whose problems they're partly responsible for creating. As well as starting the war on drugs in the first place, they've bankrolled the failing security approach through the Mérida Initiative, which has granted Mexico $1.6bn of law-enforcement funding since 2007. The apparent generosity is partly self interest, aimed at keeping drugs away from Uncle Sam’s own nieces and nephews. Narcotics and immigration are the American right’s twin bogeymen, but the attempt to root the one out of their kids' closets has left them with thousands of the other scratching at their windows – creating a refugee situation to rival any drug problem.
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1 This is slightly inaccurate. While E2 Business Visas are issued for investments at this level, the "direct to green card" option starts at $500,000.
NB I also wrote about this subject for New Internationalist. There's quotes and stuff so you should buy it.
A new documentary shows the devastating impact that cocaine prohibition has on the poor world
Illegal drugs lag behind only oil and arms in terms of total global trade-value. They could be the dirtiest of the three, too. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Cocaine Unwrapped is a new documentary showing the string of harm caused during the drug’s journey along its transnational supply chain, and rarely considered by those at the end of the line. Although it’s subtitled “The real price of cocaine”, the film really shows the unintended negative consequences of the prohibition of the drug, as they are felt in producer, transit and consumer countries.
As director Rachel Seifert put it after the screening at the Soho Curzon cinema on 29 November: “It’s about the lives of the poor people being done over by this policy.”
In Colombia, the government has attempted to eradicate the coca leaf, the ultimate source of cocaine. Much of this has taken the form of indiscriminate aerial spraying of herbicide, the war on drugs’s own form of carpet bombing, which kills yuca and banana plants as well as coca, often denying the local farmers a chance of any livelihood at all. The chemicals used pollute water supplies and have been linked with birth defects.
Now, manual methods are preferred: fully armed soldiers intrude on the beautiful countryside and uproot the plants by hand. It’s not uncommon for coca to simply be replanted: it’s one of the only sources of a decent income for some desperately poor people.
In neighbouring Ecuador, 75% of all the women in prison are there for drug-trafficking offences, nebulously defined and incentivised by American grant money being dependent on meeting conviction targets. Again often becoming drug mules due to economic imperatives, the women are stuffed into prisons designed and built for half their capacity and condemned to long sentences during which they often miss their children growing up.
The Mexican city of Juárez, standing facing El Paso, Texas across the Río Grande, has become an almost literal warzone. An ostensibly well-intentioned, but ill-advised, intervention by a corrupt military into rival gangs’ turf war has seen the murder rate skyrocket, with more than 3000 killed in 2010 – in a town maybe a fifth the size of London. The city’s children recount tales of yet another death matter-of-factly; reformed gang members tell of horrific past deeds likewise.
Further south in the country’s capital, thousands of street children are using drugs, including eight-year-olds on crack.
Mexico is a transit point for maybe 90% of all the cocaine entering the US. The final stage of its journey, as depicted here, is Baltimore, the drug problems of which are familiar to many through the TV series The Wire. Those in the know describe the cop show as being closer to a fictionalised documentary. Deindustrialisation and unemployment not only spurred high levels of addiction but also led many young men into choosing to make money the only way they felt they could – by selling drugs – and a generation of fathers were lost to the ‘correctional’ system. Those convicted on drug charges might be deprived of their freedom for a quarter century while murderers and child-molesters get out of prison before them.
And because of the price mark-up that prohibition creates, a refined agricultural product that should by worth only pennies becomes a commodity for which some will fight and kill.
(As an aside, The Wire’s David Simon mentions in his first book, Homicide, that the surge in the murder rate in Baltimore, which sees 250-300 violent deaths a year, coincided with the emergence of cocaine in the 1980s.)
As difficult as it is for a devotee of the written word to admit, film is the ideal medium in which to make this argument and convey this story. It facilitates the showing, as opposed to telling, of all the damage that the discredited policy of prohibition has wreaked: The Colombian campesino literally weeping at what the military has done to his livelihood, and to his friends. A district of a city in the richest country in the world reduced to something more closely resembling early-90s Sarajevo. The corpse on a Mexican street, and the crowd gathered in morbid fascination.
Not seen visually but heard in voiceovers backdropped by shots of London are some of the more affluent cocaine consumers. They form a microscopically tiny proportion of a total of 11 million in the west, 90% of whom are casual recreational users. The film doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that they share the blame for the misery inflicted on the victims of the drug trade.
But the idea of a drug-free planet can only seriously be met with snorts of derision. The reality we face is one in which human beings have sought out psychoactive substances since before history cares to record. While one might wish that cocaine users would give up their vice out of ethical concerns, it’s unlikely to happen.
This doesn’t absolve those users of their fair proportion of guilt. But regulation of cocaine – and indeed all drugs – would allow the production of them to occur in an ethical and responsible way. Not only this, but freeing up the $100bn currently spent on enforcement globally might just help tackle the poverty and inequality that is a further cause of some of the problems in the regions under discussion.
The alternative, eschewing a move to regulation and entrenching ourselves further in the ‘war on drugs’, will inevitably mean continuing to do all this damage. When Ronald Reagan introduced the term back in 1971, it was likely intended as populist tough-guy rhetoric. But consider the essential nature of war: the prosecuting state negatively impacts on a foreign nation, as well as a proportion of its own population – usually from the lower socio-economic classes, since they’re overwhelmingly more likely to end up as cannon fodder – for some benefit to itself.
This is precisely what is happening with drug prohibition. Latin America and parts of western inner-cities are being destroyed in an attempt to keep our own citizens away from the potential dangers of cocaine – an attempt that manifestly doesn’t work anyway.
At the question-and-answer session following the screening, the former UK deputy drug czar Mike Trace, who was interviewed for the film, claimed that in private the G8 leaders accept that current global drug policy is going very wrong – but that, given the economy, they have too much on their plates. Every day they delay prolongs the disaster their predecessors created. This film should help to make that clearer than ever.
Update 1 December 2011: Parts of this post not affecting the outcome have been edited for the purpose of not looking like an illiterate fool.
As a policy aimed at keeping drugs away from children, prohibition clearly doesn't work
Not even the most libertarian-minded of reformers would argue that drugs (of any kind) should be readily available to children. Likewise, one of the most common reasons for backing prohibition, especially among parents, is the belief that it will mean their children can't easily get their hands on potentially harmful substances.
As Prof. David Courtwright puts it in his book Forces of Habit, prohibition is seen as an insurance policy the costs of which are borne by people who shouldn't be behaving that way anyway.
But any government policy must be judged by its outcomes, not its intentions. And if they want to, it's not hard for minors to get hold of illegal drugs.
The UK data are confused by the figures for alcohol/tobacco and for illegal drugs coming from different surveys, by the rate for regular drinking being judged by past-week consumption as opposed to past-month for current drug use, and by 'adults' being defined as including 16- and 17-year-olds who still can't legally purchase cigarettes or booze.
Still, the numbers may yet be instructive. It's true that the actual rates of drug use are lower than the levels of drinking and smoking. But the proportions of children who drink and smoke are much lower than the proportion of adults who do, while the percentages of children and adults who use illegal drugs are around the same levels.
So perhaps it isn't significantly harder to get hold of drugs for children than it is for adults.
The US data are more damning still, despite them prosecuting their war on drugs rather more aggressively than we do in the UK.
According to data in the National Institute on Drug Abuse's High School and Youth Trends publication [PDF], the a higher proportion of children in the eighth, tenth and 12th grades reported having smoked marijuana in the past month than smoked cigarettes. (For context, eighth-graders are 13–14 years old; it's the equivalent to English year nine.)
There are a number of reasons why this might be the case. Street dealers don't ask for ID, since they're already operating illegally and don't have any licence to lose. The lower incentives for black-market trade in alcohol and cigarettes mean that children who do want them (and I'm assuming that there are more of them than those who want to use stronger drugs) have to go looking for them actively, rather than being offered – however near-mythical the idea of "pushers" actually is. And, as reported a few weeks ago, the opportunities to make money selling drugs facilitate their use.
But whatever the reasons, when more children are smoking an illegal drug than a legal one, isn't it time to admit that prohibition has been an abject failure?
The path from naive drug-courier to remorseless killer is all too easy
During a recent trip to Waterstone's, I happened to pick up US journalist Charles Bowden's book El Sicario: Confessions of a Cartel Hitman.
Its setting, Juárez City, forms a combined metropolitan area with El Paso, Texas, and is one of the centres of Mexico's drug war. Many such pairings of cities have dramatic imbalances of crime: below average on the US side of the border, elevated on the Mexican side. Juárez, a city of maybe 1.5 million people, has seen its murder rate soar from under 200 annually in the early 90s to more than 3000 last year, catalysed by President Calderón's war against the cartels and the entirely predictable blowback.
The subject of Bowden's book had retired from his career as a professional murderer by the time Calderón sent the widely corrupt Mexican Army to take on the narcos, and his story comes from a relatively peaceable time. But only relatively.
It's the entry into the criminal lifestyle that demonstrates one of the most devastating unintended consequences of prohibition. A poor young man was offered a large some of money to drive a car across the border, and he accepted:
"When we were in secondary school, a person invited us to a party, and he showed us how nice things could be. He made us see that we could drink and have fun, and what's more, that we could have money and maybe even a car.
"So I ask this guy, 'Okay, how? What do I have to do?'
"And he says, 'Nothing. Just drive this car to your school and deliver it to me in the morning. When you leave school in the afternoon, you will drive it over to El Paso and deliver it to me there.'
"'After that I'll give you another car, you can use it all week, I'll fill it up with gas for you. And on the weekend you give it back to me, and then you take it to El Paso for me, and then I'll loan you another car and I'll pay you.'"
Driving a car over a bridge. Why not? It's easy. There's consderable reward, little risk, and no obvious harm done.
Even when he was stopped by the DEA, after a sniffer dog had done its thing, he was let go by someone in the pay of the far-reaching cartels.
But legal regulation would deny the cartels that recruitment opportunity in the first place, reducing the incentives for young people to enter into a criminal lifestyle at the most crucial stage. Because after that entry, turning back is extremely difficult and increasing involvement almost inevitable. So, fuelled by alcohol, drugs and fear of what might happen if he refused, the book's nameless narrator ultimately became a sicario, an assassin. A murderer.
And then, 100 or so bodies later, he quit, and has been evading his former employers ever since.
In truth, the book is not as grim as I perhaps had expected. But what is truly striking is the level of self-indulgence, and the apparent lack of remorse.
All mention of his retirement is couched in terms of his 'salvation', of god singling him out and leaving messages aimed at putting him on a different path. There seems to be very little regret for the century of people that he tortured and killed other than that he had to do it – all feeling is for himself as the killer rather than for his victims as, well, victims.
Even when the cartel abduct and rape his then-wife to 'send a message' to him, he appears to view it only in terms of the effect on his own life.
It's chilling, really.
But then cold-hearted killers are not born: they are made. And they don't have to be.
Is the difference in changes in drug use and alcohol consumption during recessions down to the way they're regulated?
The increase in use of cannabis by young people during economic recessions could be a result of its trade being left to the black market, according to the codirector of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, Rosalie Pacula.
At a lecture at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine last Wednesday, 19 October, Pacula explained that while total alcohol consumption drops during a recession, along with its associated harms, the use of illicit drugs among teenagers and young adults increases. She speculated that this may be partly due to its trade being carried out entirely within the underground economy.
Summarising research published in a recession-special issue of the International Journal of Drug Policy, Pacula said that while overall alcohol use tends to go down, the use of cannabis and cocaine among youth goes up – and that this may be due to increased willingness to deal in the drugs.
"During periods of high unemployment, youth are more likely to report that they’ve sold drugs: they are more willing to engage in black-market employment," she said. "And the reason why is that they have such an incredibly high unemployment rate as it is, even before recession. Even when we’re not in an economic recession the unemployment rate among young adults is substantially higher. And they are the first ones affected when employment starts to drop."
Pacula said that there are several untested hypotheses as to how and why this drives young people into taking part in black-market activity, including facilitation by social networks, lower levels of risk aversion, lower levels of law enforcement as policing budgets are cut during recessions, and and active recruitment by other dealers.
She said that there's some evidence from the US that "black-market sellers are interested in recruiting you because they see that as a very important market: if they can get people using young, they stay using for a long time. Sounds a bit like the tobacco field – works with black-market drug selling as well".
Pacula added that when taking to illegal dealing of drugs, the use of them is facilitated by exposure, by deliberate introduction to new substances by other dealers, and by the ability to pay for drugs by selling them. "Frequently they get paid with drugs – use some, sell the rest and it covers the cost," she said.
“The importance of the findings is that recessions do not affect everyone the same – some populations are certainly more vulnerable", Pacula added.
“In the case of alcohol, the fact that heavy alcohol use, on average, declines in economic recessions, and it appears, with some indicators, that illicit drug use among the older populations might also be declining, suggests that a cut in treatment resources might not be as devastating as a cut in prevention right now. Because if youth use is going up, that’s where you want to really be careful, because youth users are your addicts of tomorrow.
"Prevention is important in this period because it is youth who are particularly vulnerable, due to high unemployment, they get tight into alternative forms of employment that provide income but that also reduce the social attachment to formal education. That has really important implications, and not just for their drug use – youth being willing to engage in black-market activities as a way of subsidising their income can have tremendous social effects outside of their drug use.”
Data also suggest that the prices of illicit drugs are stable during recessions, where one might expect them to drop due a decrease in the risk premium that ought to follow with lower law-enforcement budgets.
Alcohol prices also tend to stay the same or rise with the application of 'sin taxes', and this is one of several interacting economic effects.
Those who are unemployed have lower income and those who are at risk of becoming unemployed treat their income differently. "They’re not going to go out and have that fancy dinner; they’re going to save just in case their job is next," Pacula explained. "So the perceived notion of disposable income, even if their own actual income hasn’t changed, is one of more austerity – they’re not going to spend it.
“What does that mean for alcohol consumption? Economic analysis of demand for alcohol is quite clear: alcohol is a normal good. When incomes go up, in general, people drink more; when incomes go down, they drink less."
However for people who are unemployed, leisure time is less costly since they're no longer giving anything up to get it. This is mitigated by the tendency for people with increased leisure time to use it for healthy activities.
“You don’t have to be sober to go to work tomorrow, because you don’t have to worry about tomorrow. That actually might increase one’s willingness to engage in drinking or to get high. But when people’s leisure time goes up they actually tend to engage more in healthy activities – thinks like sleep and exercise.
"Yes, they’re stressed; there’s a lot of stress associated with losing your job, but on average the behavioural response is actually to do something that’s good for yourself. That might – might, I say, because again, this is all theory; we don’t have good evidence – offset the lowered price of leisure time that you might spend getting intoxicated."
People may be tempted to drink more to deal with the stress that recessions bring but the economic effects tend to dominate. "In the case of alcohol, economic mechanisms that relate to income effects actually have played a bigger role than the psychological effects. And on average in the population, heavy drinking and alcohol-related mortality actually go down during economic recessions – not up."
Pacula added that further challenges during recessions include reduced uptake of treatment for addictions to drugs or to alcohol, and that with lowered incomes people seek to use drugs more efficiently, such as by injecting.
The Corner is a damning indictment of the effect the war on drugs has on those in the trenches
It is to be hoped that the above headline makes things plain. It is a quote from David Simon, the creator of the TV series The Wire, who seems to be having trouble making himself understood.
And in recent weeks he has responded to the US Attorney General's call for a sixth outing for McNulty and co by declaring that he'll do a further season if the government ends its war on drugs. It seems that Eric Holder has remained oblivious to Simon's criticism of treating drug addiction as a criminal-justice problem, which pervaded the programme he so loves.
Simon tells a similar story in an epilogue in his 1997 book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighbourhood, which, by happy coincidence, this blogger has recently finished reading.
When running for election to the office of Mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley, now the governor of Maryland, strutted in front of a news camera, held the book aloft and proclaimed that he was going to take back the streets from the dealers and addicts. He manifestly hadn't read it, as he later admitted, since if he had he would have known that the book portrayed the futility and counterproductivity of prohibition.
But that's not all it did. Even as some of its principal cast sit and bemoan that they are "sitting here day after day, making ourselves a bit less human", the book shows the (real) people who live and work at the crossroads of Monroe and Fayette streets as full, rounded human beings rather than stereotypes of amoral junkies and gangsters.
Because addicts and dealers alike are usually vilified and demonised. But Simon and his co-author Ed Burns have said that the pair came to care deeply for the people with whom they spent a year working, and they succeed in making the reader genuinely care too – even as the characters of the corner lie, cheat, steal and discharge weapons.
Simon has also acknowledged that normal, daily, journalism is usually shallow, drifting into an issue and then moving on again. When done properly, five of the six question-words are answered well, but the sixth – why – is often left insufficiently explored. A year in the life of an inner-city neighbourhood isn't its totality, but it is enough to get some grasp of its true nature, and that of its cast.
Gary McCullough was an intelligent, thoughtful man, occasionally troubled by his conscience over the effect his habit had on his parents, and a little insecure despite having been moderately successful when having worked two jobs before falling into addiction. His ex-wife Fran Boyd is easily bored and struggled to maintain some sort of discipline over their son DeAndre.
The latter himself is a sometime high-school student who could have done the work if he really tried. But ineffectual parenting, easy temptation and perceived necessity led him instead into dealing and then using precisely the same drugs that caused things to turn out so badly for his parents.
The reader of The Corner can't help but will the people whose lives it chronicles to get clean or to go back to school, and to do the right things. Or to cheer for those who succeed and feel a genuine disappointment for those who do not.
Now, when Obama's drug czar Gil Kerlikowske rejected the terminology 'war on drugs', he claimed that "we are not at war with people in this country". But that's all it has ever been. To protect drug-users from themselves, and other people from their possible actions, a conflict is waged against people like the family McCullough – people who mostly need help rather than punishment.
True, they all transgressed at one point or another and not all their encounters with the US justice system were entirely undeserved. But they're not inherently bad, however often folks like them are portrayed as being exactly that.
Prohibition is nobly aimed at preventing addiction in the first place. And yet not only does it manifestly not work, but by criminalising the Frans and the Garys of the world it does nothing to help them to change when they do want to, while creating strong incentives for DeAndre and his friends to stay out of school, out of work and outside of the law.
The old hippy anti-war mantra states that "bombing for peace is like fucking for virginity". Much the same applies to the 'war on drugs'. And otherwise decent people are its casualties.
Prohibition makes a life outside of school or work far too easy
On Friday, the Independent published a profile feature I'd written of a man, Ali Niaz, who used to be a drug dealer and is now about to finish a postgraduate course at Cambridge University, via prison.
The turnaround is remarkable and commendable, a result partly of support by a businessman (charity and individuals have been plugging the state's leaks since long before an ironically top-down rebranding as the 'big society') and partly through the opportunity to change his life and the sheer will to do so.
If the latter part of the story is an unusual one, the beginning is all too common: young men growing up in poorer areas, in need or want of money, starting off peddling a little weed as teenagers and then graduating to class-A drugs later – and eschewing school or straight work. Take a spoonful of avarice, heat it up and inject it directly into a vein of hopelessness that pervades these estates, and you're cooking up the perfect environment for illicit activity to flourish, at the expense of education or (legitimate) enterprise.
“There's no real opportunities to do anything," Niaz explains. "You come outside and you want things that you see on TV, and the only way of getting them is to do what you see outside your house. All the old guys on the estate, they drive around in their nice cars, nice clothes, chains and everything. Basically that's what you want, and the only way to get it is either to steal or to sell drugs. And I chose to sell drugs."
It's certainly no help that there are few job opportunities. But prohibition, a futile attempt to legislate against the laws of supply and demand, has created the temptation for young men to decline to work hard and sell drugs instead. Many will inevitably find it irresistible.
"Why would you want to work a 9-to-5 and get five pound an hour?" Niaz asked when I first interviewed him last September. It's a fair question. "I used to make £4000 a week profit. I spent a lot of money. Now, I get £200 a week wages and I fucking work hard for it. I've got a son now and I don't want to go back to jail and I've got certain opportunities, but who would want to work for £200 a week when they can sell drugs?
"And a lot of people can't even get jobs, especially with what's going on in the world now. People without qualifications can't even get jobs let alone us with no qualifications. And then they tell us 'you shouldn't sell drugs'. What else are we supposed to do? You're not giving us any income, you're not giving us any jobs, it's on our doorstep to be able to sell drugs and make a good living and live a lifestyle like we see on TV. Why are we not going to do it? It's easy."
Life imitates art right here. Niaz's comment closely echoes the 2000 social-drama film Traffic, in which the head of the Office for National Drug Control Policy, played by Michael Douglas, is out searching for his addict daughter in a part of Cincinnati, Ohio that can at best be described as “rough”. His daughter’s boyfriend – or more probably ex-boyfriend, given that by this point in the story the girl has become a crack-whore – is asked how he could have brought her to this place, and responds with:
“Why don’t you just back the fuck up man? ‘To this place’? What is that shit? Right now, all over this great nation of ours, 100,000 white people from the suburbs are cruising around downtown asking every black person they see, ‘You got any drugs?’ ‘You know where I can score some drugs?’
“Think about the effect that has on the psyche of a black person, on their possibilities. I guarantee you, if you bring 100,000 black people into your neighbourhood – into fuckin’ Indian Hill – and they’re asking every white person they see, 'You got any drugs?’ ‘You know where I can score some drugs?’… within a day everyone would be selling. Your friends, their kids. Here’s why: It’s an unbeatable market force, man; it’s a 300% mark-up value.
“You can go out on the street and make $500 in two hours and come back and do whatever you want to do with the rest of your day, and, I’m sorry – you’re telling me that white people would still be going to law school?”
In at least some of the US, the lure of the illegal drug trade is far greater than here in the UK, and children are reeled into its net with some particularly attractive and targeted bait. Neill Franklin, formerly of the Maryland State Police and the Baltimore Police Department, compares it to growing up in, say, a mining town.
"When you have a community, when you have kids growing up in that community, first of all they are absolutely 100% products of their environment," he says. "The drug trade is, in many neighbourhoods, the number one single employer, the number one single employment opportunity, for the people in those communities.
"Now, you have the kids growing up in these communities. They see, and therefore know, that most of the money made is by way of the illegal drug trade. It would be like a kid growing up in a mining town where most of the people there are miners. All the people in that mining town are miners, or involved in the mining business. So unless you move up out of that community, you can probably say you're going to be a miner."
Not only can the seemingly easy money appear attractive, but the neighbourhood kids are actively, and manipulatively, recruited too.
"When you have a young male and say that this young male has been doing very well going to school, but then, one day – and it's going to happen – one day this young male is going to be approached by one of the neighbourhood drug dealers," Franklin says. "And they're going to give him $100 or a couple hundred dollars, and tell, him, you know 'those tennis shoes you have are pretty old; why don't you go and buy yourself some of the latest and greatest?'. And I don't think you're going to find too many kids who are going to turn down a couple hundred dollars.
"And they don't understand that they're being trapped and that they're being set up, so they take the money and they go to the local shoe store and from that moment on they've been had. That young man has just been recruited and they don't even know it." Frankiln says they'll either enjoy the money and come back for more, or be forced to pay it off by carrying a package or acting as a lookout.
Now, not every kid who sells a few drugs is potential Cambridge material, just as only a minority will ever go to prison or be party to, or victim of, the violence that often accompanies the trade. But from the perspective of wider society, they'd always be better off in a legal (and therefore taxed) job than working in a criminal underworld, and it would even be preferable to have them on benefits rather than in jail.
Much of the time, children from poorer backgrounds need incentives to stay in school. The ease with which they can make money by illegally selling drugs gives them an incentive not to. For all the handwringing about the use of drugs possibly causing young people to waste their potential, the ready provision of a career outside of the law means that the prohibition of them does exactly the same.
An interview with Major Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
A conservative, the saying goes, is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.
As far as drug policy is concerned, the reverse is just as likely. A reformer is a prohibitionist whose friend has been shot dead.
That is the case, at least, with Neill Franklin, formerly a Major with the Maryland State Police and now the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), the nonprofit organisation of retired north-American cops and judges whose careers led them to see that a criminal-justice approach to the drug problem has failed.
Franklin had graduated from the Maryland State Police academy in 1979 and began working undercover in narcotics enforcement in the suburbs of Washington, DC the following year. Initially, he'd seen virtue in enforcing drug laws, with the genuinely noble aims of reducing addiction and crime. But good intentions don't make a good idea, and the myth was dispelled soon enough. "As time went on I began to see that it was a neverending vicious cycle with no progress," he says.
Despite a growing skepticism, Franklin's efforts never declined, and trying an alternative still hadn't occurred to him, believing that even if the war on drugs wasn't advancing then at least a stalemate was preventing a flood of addiction.
"I kind of like had the impression that if we let up then it would be this, you know, sort of like the dyke breaking and then you'd have the massive destruction that would occur with a flood of narcotics," he says. "That wasn't really the case, but that's what I thought at the time."
Treading muddy water can only go on for so long before even the law's long arms begin to tire. The tide began to turn for Franklin during the 1990s, by which time he was in management, working as a commander over several multi-jurisdictional anti-drug units.
A little earlier, in 1987, Kurt Schmoke had been elected to his first of three terms as Mayor of Baltimore (the problems of which, through The Wire, many UK-based readers will know better than those of our own inner cities). Schmoke had begun to speak of the potential benefits of drug decriminalisation, and Franklin had begun to listen.
The wave finally broke in October 2000, by which time Franklin was in command of the Baltimore Police Department's academy, spurred by the murder of his friend and former colleague Edward Toatley.
Toatley had been working in the DC suburbs along with the FBI, carrying out a 'buy-bust' on a mid-level dealer – a mid-level dealer who got spooked, and shot the undercover cop in the head at point-blank range.
Franklin says that he'd then finally concluded that prohibition was counterproductive after "getting to the hospital when he had passed, and then seeing his wife and his kids, and realising that this was a futile effort that we were engaged in, and we needed to figure out another way and another strategy." There's a detectable, and understandable, pain in his voice a decade on.
He says that the initial thoughts of many police officers who had been close to Toatley were of anger at his murderer, and the idea that they should crack down even harder on drug-dealing. But then he stopped to think about the danger that those in law enforcement have to face – and that which they don't. Policing is an inherently risky job, and its men and women are paid to put themselves on the line for us. But they shouldn't be asked to do so lightly.
"We know that it's always been our job to apprehend those who murder, those who commit crimes against other people," he says. "From the beginning of time, it's always been our job to protect people from people. But because we are now attempting to protect people from choices they make, we created these policies that compound the potential for violence against police officers."
Criminals involved in illegal activity can behave extremely violently to try to avoid staying out of jail, or even to make more money. This doesn't really happen with legal trade. "We don't have beer barons or beer companies fighting each other in the street," Franklin says. "Wineries aren't going at it with guns and violence." Or not anymore.
It's a tragedy that it took the death of a friend for that realisation to have stuck for good, but it's so often the case with policy that it never matters until it's personal.
It was after Toatley's murder that Franklin began to speak out against prohibition, and he first heard of LEAP, where he is now executive director, two years later.
The job includes speaking and writing against the policy of prohibition, and, in an ironic touch, getting involved with drug offenders, such a group of 12 incarcerated teenagers with whom he'd recently held a workshop, in a far more personal and human way than police officers normally do.
After Major Franklin's own Damascene conversion, all that remains is to convince others. Winning hearts and minds is never an easy task, but the most respected critic of any war has always been the old soldier.