Anyone who’s watched Ken Burns’ new PBS documentary on America’s disastrous experiment with Prohibition may have noticed some stinging similarities to America’s 40-year-old war on drugs.
At least Silvester Salcedo hopes you have. He’s basing his outsider campaign for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut on ending our devilishly expensive and futile battle to stop people from doing drugs.
“Anybody with half a brain should be able to understand the history,” says Salcedo, a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy who served in naval intelligence.
Salcedo says the war on drugs — just like Prohibition — is a misdirected attempt, backed by the religious right, to deal with a real problem of addiction. Just like Prohibition, this effort to control the morals of Americans has created vast networks of organized crime, rampant violence and public corruption. And just like Prohibition, the war on drugs has failed.
Federal statistics show drug use in the United States is about at the same level as it was when the war on drugs was declared in 1971.
There are differences. Salcedo argues this anti-drug campaign is costing far more than Prohibition did, wasting billions of dollars that could be used for education, treatment of addiction and other good stuff.
If anything, Salcedo says, the today’s drug war is worse for America than the effort in the 1920s and 1930s to ban booze.
Mexico, where some 40,000 people have been “caught in the crossfire” since 2005, “is about to boil over,” says Salcedo. The impact of federal, state and local spending to enforce anti-drug laws can be seen “in every city and town, in every school budget, and in our prisons,” according to Salcedo.
Salcedo wants to legalize marijuana, tax and regulate it just as we do alcohol, and place the issue of hard drugs like heroin and cocaine with medical and mental health professionals. He also backs the idea of calling a truce with the Mexican drug cartels that are ripping that nation apart.
And no, this guy isn’t tripping or high on dope.
He’s a 54-year-old lawyer living in the upscale New Haven suburb of Orange, is married to a doctor, has one son and no illusions that this campaign of his will be anything like an easy political sell.
“This is my second try for public office,” he says, explaining that his first didn’t work out too well.
A Democrat, Salcedo’s initial plunge into politics was in the 130th Assembly District. It’s a state House seat representing most of Bridgeport’s East Side and South End, an area Salcedo calls “Ground Zero for the drug trade in Bridgeport.” In that 2008 race, Salcedo ended up a distant third in a three-way race.
He knows he’s an outsider in Connecticut’s political game. He knows he’s going up against seasoned insiders with far more money, experience and contacts like U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy and former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, the two front runners in the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination contest.
He also knows no one else in the campaign is talking about the futility and insane cost of continuing this war on drugs. “They’re all afraid,” he says flatly.
Salcedo acknowledges that bringing the drug issue into the public consciousness is his primary goal: “Realistically, it is to bring this subject to the forefront.”
But this former military intelligence officer says he is also seeing extraordinary things taking place in a world transformed by the Internet and people determined to bring change. He points to the Arab Spring and says nothing like it has ever happened before.
“Am I being realistic?” he asks about his effort to convince Connecticut Democrats that something must be done to end this war on drugs. “By February, or March or April, anything can happen.”
Salcedo says American attitudes toward illegal drugs are changing. Connecticut and Massachusetts have already decriminalized small amounts of marijuana. In places like New Jersey and Rhode Island, state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs have been created.
The recession is causing people to think about wasteful government spending and ways to cut costly prison populations. Salcedo believes America could be nearing a tipping point when it comes to the drug war.
And, he says, “I’m trying to be the guy to trip that trigger.”