Newsflash! Uruguay has fashioned a marijuana legalization program that is smart and graceful, yet does not turn the little South American nation into a tourist Mecca like Amsterdam. Legalization only applies to citizens. It may be the best decriminalization model yet. In the annals of beleaguered US Attorney General Jeff Sessions — whose obsession with weed I wrote about earlier — this amounts to another warning shot from the real world making it clear re-invigorating federal anti-marijuana law enforcement is not workable — unless the plan is to assume an all-out police state mode. Everybody knows the bloodhounds are baying in the woods and getting closer on the scent of Sessions’ Russia problem. In a front-page interview with The New York Times, President Trump makes it clear he’s fed up with Sessions for recusing himself on the Russia investigation. Jeff Sessions may be approaching pariah status in Washington DC.
Uruguay’s actions are part of a general trend in Latin America that suggests leaders there don’t give the US Drug War much credence any more. One leader after another has expressed frustration with the US military and police obsession with the supply of drugs from the South, while leaders in the US fail to socially address the demand at home that has always driven the so-called “war.” Latin American leaders are effectively reading the US the riot act. Bastante! Enough. That goes for leaders in Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, Jamaica and even Canada.
One of the most interesting examples of this shift occurred during the notorious summit meeting in Cartagena in 2012. Conservative Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos publicly requested of President Barack Obama that the US do more about demand and let up on Latin America for being the supplier of that dysfunctional US demand. Get your own house in order and stop scapegoating us.
Americans, however, never got this story. As many will recall, what we did get was a raft of juicy scandal stories about the president’s secret service detail getting laid by high-class Colombian prostitutes. (Prostitution is legal in Colombia and thrives in Cartagena.) Was this absence an insidious conspiracy? Or was it, rather, just the exceptionalist American subconscious at work making it clear the United States never recognizes problems having to do with itself. As any morally righteous gringo understands, the real horror was American special agents protecting the president of the United States having sex with dark and furtive Latin women for cash. Elite American warriors compromised by Mestizo honey pots! Now that’s a story you can run with in Gringolandia. Editors decided Americans didn’t want to hear that the USA had been using its Drug War to demonize Latin America for supplying it what its population demanded — as if that isn’t a perfect definition of free private enterprise.
Santos wrote this in a Guardian op-ed: “We need to introduce a public health framework to the treatment of drug consumption focusing on prevention, attention, rehabilitation and re-socialisation of drug abusers.” He did praise Obama for encouraging his controversial peace initiatives with the FARC — a novel approach that does seem surprisingly good. “Many people warned me that it would be political suicide,” Santos told Obama in opening remarks at the summit. “Making war is so much easier than making peace. And you not only believed it was possible, you encouraged me to go ahead, and gave me your full and enthusiastic support.” Santos also honored Obama for opening relations with Cuba. Many on the right in Latin American and in the US feel Santos must have lost his mind.
With the ascendancy of a ruthless, inexperienced TV-star/real-estate-mogul as US president — a man who got into the White House by slandering Obama as an illegal immigrant from the Dark Continent and calling Latin American immigrants “rapists” — respect has turned to outright disdain. Eduardo Blasina, the director of something called the Montevideo Cannabis Museum, summed it up this way for The New York Times: “Today, what the United States says has never mattered less. We don’t see its president as a reasonable individual whose opinion is worth anything.”
Montevideo is the capital of Uruguay, a small nation on the Atlantic coast south of Brazil and northeast of Argentina. Until recently, the amazingly humble Jose “Pepe” Mujica was president of Uruguay; he started the ball rolling on the legalization of marijuana. Mujica is a former guerrilla imprisoned and tortured during the days of the dirty wars in that region. As many will recall, that was when Henry Kissinger — accessory to the murder of duly-elected President Salvador Allende in Chile — liked to point out something called “the arc of history” didn’t pass through South America, which meant to Mr. Kissinger what went on down there didn’t really matter. It didn’t matter if friendly right-wing regimes murdered and disappeared citizens in the left-leaning opposition. It was a horrific time. Many of the disappeared were killed and their naked bodies flown out over the ocean, slit open so they’d sink when kicked out the door as unidentifiable shark chum. It’s always good to remember this period, lest it return like a Dracula sequel. One good way to remember is to use Netflicks for films like The Official Story, a memorable Argentine film about a conservative, childless high school history teacher whose husband (he’s in the secret police) brings home an adorable baby girl. This woman’s growing curiosity and her efforts to figure out where this child came from makes the film a powerful story.
There’s a very deep-seated mistrust in Latin America for right-wing gringo leaders from the North. Uruguay is small and likely more homogeneous and cosmopolitan than its much larger neighbors. This may explain why its ex-guerrilla leader is so respected, while in the giant to the north — Brazil — ex-guerrilla, former President Dilma Rousseff, who was also imprisoned and tortured, was ignominiously removed from the presidency by the Brazilian right in a highly-polarized political climate. Her predecessor — the popular Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva — was just given a 10-year jail sentence. In both cases, the charge was corruption. With a very violent and exploitative history, Brazil is one of the more corrupt nations on the planet; corruption seems to have been absorbed into its very being. Corruption in Brazil? To paraphrase the narrator’s line in Apocalypse Now: “Charging someone with corruption in Brazil is like giving out speeding tickets at the Indianapolis 500.”
Colombia has a very bloody history as well. But President Santos has broken with his predecessor and the absorption of FARC into the system seems to be working. His views on the Drug War are equally interesting. He opened his Guardian op-ed this way:
“How does one explain to a Colombian peasant in a rural community in the southwest of the country that he will be prosecuted under criminal charges for growing marijuana plants, while a young entrepreneur in Colorado finds his or her legal recreational marijuana business booming?”
A very good question that our own Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other drug warriors should be made to ponder. Too many of them are still obsessed with violence and prison as a problem solvers.
Uruguayan Congressman Sebastian Sabini, a 36-years-old leftist and an occasional pot smoker, is the father of the new marijuana legalization plan in Uruguay. He says it’s a matter of social justice. “The sectors that bear the brunt of drug policies are the poorest,” he told The New York Times. “The ones sent to jail are the poor people.”
That class-based dynamic is certainly at work here in the United States. (Of course, we’re not supposed to mention the idea of class here in North America.) All one has to do is look at the race and economic strata of the majority of people we have prosecute and imprisoned over the years for drug crimes. Then watch unpopular New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pander to The Opiate Crisis and suburban Jersey girls on heroin. Nobody cried such crocodile tears when it was inner city African American kids ruining their troubled lives on crack or heroin. Then, it was an impassioned call for more cops and more prisons. Get tough! No mercy! Arrest ‘em and lock ‘em up. And once they’re locked up in America — where politicians can never be seen saying I’m sorry or I was wrong — prison reform is a Sisyphian project.
I will never forget an encounter I had back in the ‘90s with then-Senator Joe Biden from Delaware. I was working as the house photographer for Widener University, which is just south of the Philly airport and just north of the Delaware line. Biden was then working hard in the Senate to fund more cops and prisons. He came to Widener to speak on the topic, and I was assigned to photograph him. After taking a few shots, I decided to stay to listen to the man and his pitch for the Drug War, something that personally interested me, beyond my job as a flak photographer.
I forget exactly what the beloved working-class senator from the corporate state of Delaware said. But it didn’t sit right with me. I had been spending my vacation time as a photographer in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua, in the middle of the Reagan Wars. I’d also been photographing addicts on the street through a needle exchange program in inner city Philadelphia and had been reading on Harm Reduction research. Later, I become aware, from a book by Ted Gest called Crime & Politics: Big Government’s Erratic Campaign for Law and Order, that when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, Democrats were freaked out: they feared they were finished politically. According to Gest, it was Joe Biden who saved the day by saying, “‘Give me the crime issue and you’ll never have trouble with it in an election.’” Crime bills were the way for Democrats to stay in the political game.
“How did so much crime legislation pass during the partisan 1980s?” Gest asks. “A key element was important personal relationships in the Capital, especially between Biden and the new Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.” This is the famous racist Dixiecrat who, following the Nixon Strategy, had changed his party affiliation to Republican, keeping his Senate seniority. It was the beginning of a fruitful political friendship — “fruitful” that is, if you were a politician willing to pander and fuel the Drug War fears of the time. The result was money for more cops and more prisons. It was part and parcel with what Michelle Alexander has dubbed “the new Jim Crow,” where the stigma of being a felon replaced the old stigma of being a nigger. Bill Clinton went on to pursue a similar strategy to stay in the political game.
It was thus that I encountered Senator Biden in a Widener University auditorium shilling for the Drug War. I was in the second row and raised my hand. Biden called on me, stepping toward me as I stood up. We were maybe ten feet apart. My question focused on why he seemed to dismiss addressing the demand problem in the United Stares. I mentioned Harm Reduction. The important word I used was decriminalization. My point was why couldn’t we try something other than using the military and police and prisons to address our very real drug problem?
I might as well have said something about his children. He knew I was there as some kind of working PR person, and he lit into me with vicious glee. He turned to address the audience, avoiding both me and my question.
“This fellow thinks he’s smart. He cleverly uses the term ‘decriminalization’ — when he really means legalization. He wants to make drugs legal, folks.” He went on some more. All the time I wanted to say: “Listen — SIR! — would you answer my question.”
It was personal. But it made the man’s huge investment in the Drug War very clear. He knew very well that decriminalization and all the very reasonable Harm Reduction research was the Achilles heel of the Drug War. If the well-respected Ted Gest is correct, the Drug War virtually made Joe Biden’s political career; working with Strom Thurmond to put away black people made him who he is today. Is this unfair to Joe Biden? No doubt, his bi-partisan cooperation with Thurmond to some degree mitigated the South Carolina senator’s Old South racism. It did nothing, however, to ease up the trend that led to the mass incarceration of African Americans; and some would add it did nothing to mitigate the current dysfunctional national bruise caused by the ideological struggle between the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements.
We all know Joe Biden’s well-nourished public persona as the working man’s politician, the guy all of us want to sit down and have a beer with. The fact is, I would have loved to sit down and have a beer with Joe. I’d ask him to answer the question he parried away in that auditorium. What do we have to do now to undo what you and your bi-partisan allies created back in the ’80s? We all may have the opportunity to ask him these questions, since it feels like he’s running for 2020. But let’s hope the Democrats get their act together and do better than running good ol’ Joe.
Thanks to the moral bankruptcy of our North American leaders on the Drug War and a history of arrogant intervention in Latin America — from Henry Kissinger to Joe Biden — leaders in Latin America are going their own way, working in the interests of their own populations. With the ascendancy of Donald Trump, this moral bankruptcy has reached a new low. The White House has become a major reality show and our attorney general and the rest of the cabinet are fodder for jokes.
In some quarters, there’s hope in dope. The great American Willie Nelson has launched his own marijuana company with the classy brand name Willie’s Reserve. Like Louis Armstrong and other musicians, Nelson is a regular pot smoker. He told Rolling Stone magazine he wished Attorney General Jeff Sessions would just lighten up and smoke a bone. Nelson also said he once worked for Donald Trump at one of his casinos and that the man had paid him well and on time, despite his vast experience with bankruptcy. Then he somehow became president of the United States and was surprised how hard that job was. Nelson toyed with the idea of running for president once. Then he thought about it and changed his mind.
“It’s easy,” the laid back Texas country singer said, “when you can just go bankrupt anytime you want to and say, ‘I’ll check you later.’ But that’s hard to do when you’re president of the United States.”
We wonder why we have an opiate crisis among white suburbanites and why legal marijuana is such a big deal now in America. Why every night on TV we get ads ad-nauseam for this or that legal drug to do this or that with our psyche or body. Americans of all stripes are simply exhausted and frustrated with the political/social/cultural world they’ve allowed to assume such power over them. We’re all taught what individuals we are — yet we’re caught in a maelstrom way beyond our control. So we turn to escape and delusion, helped along by this or that chemical. It’s not that hard to figure out. One simply has to be capable of seeing it. But, then, humans are generally screwed up everywhere. That’s the Human Condition, what Jean Paul Sartre meant when he coined the phrase “Hell is other people.”