There has been a trend lately in book publishing that looks back at its radical political past. I’m talking about pamphleteering and I’m a fan. These are books small in length and modest in format that are written and edited with laser-precision on some vital topic of the day.
I read and loved a 2002 edition by the Prickly Paradigm Press that wasn’t didacticism on the part of its authors so much as didacticism implicit in a long interview they conducted with the great Richard Rorty just before he died. Rorty is known best for his philosophy of pragmatism but throughout his life he was a dogged champion of majoritarian politics much to the delight or dismay of his fellow progressives. Called Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies, the interview pleasantly meanders like any good conversation but ends with a resounding clang of truth: People with bosses have more in common than people who don’t — a blindingly obvious foundation for any progressive movement.
A new pamphlet that’s come across my desk is Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico. It’s published by Cinco Puntos Press, an indie outfit in El Paso, Texas. The book, which is not 120 pages in digest format, is a case for the end of marijuana prohibition. In abstract, the argument looks to the failures of alcohol prohibitions in the 1920s, but it concretely brings our attention to a startling paradox: the more governments criminalize pot, the more people die.
Authors Beta O’Rourke and Susie Byrd are representatives of El Paso’s City Council (O’Rourke is now running for U.S. Congress). They came of age only miles from the Mexican border, and witnessed what happened to El Paso and its city sister, Juarez, after Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a massive offensive against the drug cartels.
El Paso and Juarez are the epicenter of the North American drug trade, especially marijuana. It’s where Mexican supply meets American demand. O’Rourke notes in his introduction that he didn’t care about pot until 2008 when 1,623 citizens were killed. But “people weren’t just murdered,” O’Rourke says. “They were brutalized. Tortured. Maimed. Shot. Knifed. Strangled. Set on fire. Hanged. Dismembered. Beheaded. One at a time.”
It grew worse. In 2009, 2,754 were killed. In 2010, it was 3,111. Compare Juarez’s homicide rate to that of a similarly sized city like Cincinnati. In 2010, the murder rate there rose by 20 percent to 60.
The authors suggest the reason for the blood bath is a combination of the following: Demand north of the border will never go away. Supply’s legal status means suppliers act with impunity. Increased pressure from the feds destabilizes the honor-among-thieves system in place for decades. Add the social phenomenon of murder begetting murder and you have something like modernday Juarez.
Like the authors, I didn’t much care about the pot debate and I had scant knowledge of the drug’s medical benefits and the social detriments of its continued prohibition (like a trivial act of possession leading to serious felony charges). But the atrocities of Juarez can’t help but concentrate the mind and fundamentally undermine the logic of the 40-year War on Drugs. Officials say increased violence in Juarez was a sign that law enforcement was working, but as the bodies kept piling up, it became obvious that law enforcement played a causal role in the carnage.
On this, the authors build their case for the decriminalization of marijuana, a case that to me seems pretty familiar: If we bring all aspects of the drug above ground, where it can be regulated, controlled and taxed like other drugs, we will see a transformation akin to what we saw at the end of the 1920s. During Prohibition, alcohol was more potent and criminals more violent. After Prohibition, the mob was decoupled from black market booze, the homicide rate spiraled downward, and the availability of wine and beer meant people didn’t have to get toasted fast before the cops showed up.
It’s a demand-side argument, which, to my only slightly informed ears, sounds like an idea at least talking about, because, really, has the supply-side tactic done much since the Nixon administration? I mean, other than destroying lives and making city cops more like army soldiers? Not so much, no.
Because this argument is presented in just the right size – not as small as a blog post but not as big as a full-length case study – I’m all ears. Sure, the writing is sometimes poor, and there are inconsistencies of logic, but I don’t care. The pamphlet format allows me to dip my toe into a swimming pool of backstory, and I leave with a simple but not simplistic takeaway on an important issue I didn’t know I cared about.
Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico
By Beto O'Rourke and Susie Byrd. Cinco Puntos Press, 119 pages, $12.95.
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