Daniel Denvir

We're All Being Used: No, It's Not Immoral to Use Illegal Drugs

A New York Times op-ed by Mario Berlanga, a recent graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business from Mexico, made the argument that using illegal drugs is immoral because it funds cartels’ bloody rampage south of the border. It’s a straightforward point he makes — but also entirely wrong.

Berlanga lamented that many of his “friends and classmates here in the United States care about making the world a better place, and they try to make purchases that reflect their values” by becoming vegetarians or buying fair-trade coffee yet also “pop Ecstasy or snort cocaine. They think this drug use is a victimless crime. It’s not. Follow the supply chain and you’ll find a trail of horrific violence.”

Berlanga explored that trail in heart-wrenching detail. But the reality is that the bloodshed in Mexico, along with so many fatal overdoses, incarcerations and police abuses in the United States, aren’t caused so much by the use of illegal drugs but rather by the prohibition that makes drugs illegal. Cocaine, for one, began to be trafficked in large quantities through Central America and Mexico precisely because the U.S. successfully cracked down on trafficking routes from Colombia through the Caribbean to Florida, while Colombia cracked down on the Medellín cartel.

“By the mid-1990s, further U.S. pressures drove the drug’s profit-leading wholesale trafficking to northern Mexico, the prelude to the current showdown between druglords and the Mexican state,” historian Paul Gootenberg wrote. “Each stage in this progression has seen a dramatic expansion of both drug supplies and drug-related conflict and violence, and each stage has propelled the geography of the drug business further north . . . along the way to the present crisis, Mexican drug exporters have diversified in and out of marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin.”

Mexican cartels then took advantage of their newfound position as key middlemen for Colombian organizations to amass wealth, power and a more independent operation by demanding shares of cocaine instead of payments in cash.

“By 2000, the 80 to 90 percent of cocaine that originally had passed from Medellín and then Cali through Florida had transformed into a comparable ratio moving up Central American coasts into northern Mexico,” Gootenberg wrote.

Meanwhile, in Colombia, U.S. intervention and the state repression it supported in the 1990s resulted in drug trafficking organizations becoming “more effective” as they adapted to create “far more anonymous, efficient, and fluid smuggling networks,” he wrote.

Berlanga insisted that “Americans must recognize that every time they buy illegal drugs they reward the cartels.”

In reality, it’s prohibition that creates the risk premium that cartels deploy mass violence in an eager bid to exploit. And it was drug interdiction efforts that drove cocaine trafficking into Mexico and thus rewarded the cartels — to utterly disastrous ends. Today the celebrated arrest or killing of one cartel leader in Mexico predictably often works to the benefit of another cartel and foments fresh violence as rival groupings jockey to gain advantage.

Trying to make the world a better place through ethical consumption is a well-intentioned but misguided form of activism. It peddles the notion that individual choice, rather than systemic change, can fix the enormous problems we confront, from poverty and inequality to climate change and deforestation. Consuming illegal drugs is no more unethical than driving a car.

So great, be sober and ride a bike. But don’t pretend like you’re doing the world some huge favor. Retreating into the ideological cocoon of free individual choice distracts from the real problem and legitimizes its cause — which in this case is prohibition and the war on drugs.

It’s not inherently immoral to use illegal drugs, though in some cases it may be unwise. What’s immoral is the drug war. Legalizing and regulating drugs would have all kinds of positive impacts, including decreasing the United States’ gargantuan prison population, reducing aggressive policing, making drug quality safer, reducing user stigmatization, facilitating access to treatment and perhaps most important, stemming the carnage across Latin America wrought by prohibition in the name of American public health.

That’s why so many people in Latin America today are calling for the war on drugs to end. In March, former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico wrote that they “came to an unavoidable conclusion” that “the ‘war on drugs’ is an unmitigated disaster” after “examining our own failures on this front while in office.”

Berlanga is right to condemn the violence that has engulfed Mexico. But “just say no” didn’t work when Nancy Reagan was pushing it, just as it failed during the miserable experiment in alcohol prohibition. And it won’t work now. It’s a distraction from and an apologia for a drug war that kills en masse. When it comes to drugs, Americans need to take a look in the mirror — not to stigmatize drug use but demand better public policy.

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Hillary Clinton Is Tossing a Lifeline to Down-Ballot GOPers, but Is Pulling Punches Against Conservatism a Smart Idea?

Donald Trump has made this election, like everything else, about Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton, happily skewering him as he blows up his campaign with ruinous attacks on fellow Republicans and myriad others, has zero problems with this. But critics on the left do, because by playing it safe Clinton is sending troubling if unsurprising signals about the agenda she will set as president, and also missing a historic opportunity to crush the Republican Party in a moment of acute vulnerability. Instead of aggressively making the case that Trump represents the worst of Republican greed and bigotry, she is inviting their leaders and donors to join her campaign en masse.

That, of course, is not what’s happening. DNC Communications Director Luis Miranda complained that the Clinton campaign has requested that they not tie Trump to down-ballot Republicans, according to a Wikileaked email attributed to him and dated May 16. Instead, of holding candidates responsible for nominating a monster that reflects the party’s worst, the campaign wanted to celebrate the fleeing Republicans and distinguish Trump as abnormal.

The Clinton campaign, Miranda charged, would force the DNC “to throw out our entire frame that the GOP made Trump through years of divisive and ugly politics. We would have to say that Republicans are reasonable and that the good ones will shun Trump.”

Clinton’s bid to forge an anti-Trump consensus is a reincarnation of what Sarah Palin dubbed “that hopey-changey stuff”: Obama’s rapturous promise that his charisma and the basic goodness of American people could transcend partisan rancor. Clinton, like Obama but minus the charisma, is running not so much as a Democrat but as a bipartisan tribune of democracy—this time against what’s perceived to be an unprecedented threat of authoritarianism and chaos.

She’s running not against the billionaire class, as Bernie Sanders did, but against one outrageous individual who purports to be a billionaire. It’s a negative campaign but a bad one: instead of demonizing the Republican Party agenda, with its fealty to corporate America and scapegoating of racial, religious and sexual minorities, it attacks that party’s apotheosis, Donald Trump, as an aberration who must be defeated for the sake of protecting democracy.

Obama set the tone at the convention, praising Ronald Reagan as an icon who Trump has defiled, and declaring that “America is already great.”

Positive economic indicators notwithstanding, this is tone deaf given the state of economic misery and xenophobic anger coursing through both parties this year. Obama, however, does know from his own experience that this message has beat out Republican intransigence at the ballot box—at least for the presidency. In 2008, Obama delivered the warm, therapeutic salve that many voters wanted after Bush.

It has not, however, been much of a success down ballot: Democrats lost control of Congress and a huge number of state-level offices. This is in part thanks to Republican redistricting designs, and the non-proportional manner in which the country draws congressional and statehouse districts: more Americans voted for House Democrats in 2012 than Republicans yet Republicans nonetheless won a solid majority.

But Obama can still be faulted for not not broadly attacking the Republican agenda and for failing to articulate a coherent and transformational alternative. Democrats trotted out piecemeal reforms—and the disastrous capitulation of a proposed Social Security cut—to confront an expansive conservative blueprint drawn from religious and economic ideologues. Reaching their hand across the aisle, they were met time and again with the cold shoulder. After the 2010 Tea Party wave ushered in an overwhelmingly right-wing Congress it’s hard to know what Obama was thinking.

There is, of course, a Clintonian path to bipartisan cooperation, as is evidenced by some its key accomplishments in recent decades: NAFTA, financial deregulation and the Iraq War. Her current recruitment of disaffected Republicans is supposed to be pragmatic. In reality, it is the source of the very sort of policy disasters that have fomented the rise of Trump on the right and Sanders on the left.

“We are actually seeing a class solidarity of Washington careerists, policy wonks, the national security state and the media,” Olivier Jutel writes. “This open solidarity of the experts and elite is precisely what animates the fascist imaginary of the puppet masters undermining the American people’s natural order.”

There is a counterargument to be made: It’s possible that Clinton will best aid down-ticket candidates by driving up her margins by any means necessary. But this year, the strategy seems unwise: though ticket-splitting has withered in recent years, it is precisely what Republican down-ballot candidates are counting on for their salvation. And so far, most Republican incumbents are outperforming Trump in polls. Why toss Republican incumbents in Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Florida a lifeline?

What excited many people about Sanders campaign was that he articulated a big picture vision of what the United States should be like. This frustrated pundits to no end. But what Sanders understood is that successful negotiations are impossible without a clear idea of what one wants to achieve in the ideal. At present, the Clinton campaign is dreaming small and peddling in nightmares. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if Clinton ends up being a better president than I worry she will be, at least on the domestic side. The mass investments in infrastructure and free (if limited) public university tuition she supports would be huge. But promoting elite consensus politics, under the depoliticized guise of national unity, risks handing Clinton a mandate empty of anything substantive aside from “never Trump.”

Sanders would no doubt have approached a general election matchup with Trump rather differently, emphasizing not only his profound lack of human decency but also pillorying him as the cartoonish icon of avarice and hate that the Republican Party so richly deserves. You can imagine what Sanders would have told Whitman and Bloomberg to do with their money. Hell, the money never would have been offered. But Sanders lost. Clinton is now the candidate she was destined to become. Will it nudge up her margin of victory? Maybe. Will it deliver the political moment necessary for a transformative presidency? Unlikely. Clinton, with such a good chance of beating Trump, is highlighting the very limits of Clintonism by pulling her punches against conservatism.

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Latin America Reflects on the Other 9/11

35 years ago on September 11th, 28 years before Al-Qaeda fighters crashed hijacked passenger planes into the World Trade Center's two towers, the Nixon Administration helped orchestrate a right wing military coup against democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende. As troops under the command of General Augusto Pinochet approached the presidential palace, Allende gave a farewell radio address to the nation and then shot himself in the head, refusing the military's offer of "safe passage."

Today in Chile, thousands across the country gathered, as they do every year, to remember that day.

A recent New York Times article discusses how many people in the Middle East believe that the U.S. government must have been behind the attacks on New York and Washington seven years ago. They don't believe that a guy hanging out in Afghanistan could get by the ostensibly foolproof security of the world's most powerful nation. While I think that it is certain that, for better or for worse, a group of Muslim fundamentalists carried out the attack, I also think that it worthwhile to consider about how 9/11 has turned into a contested symbol, a symbol that remains the point of departure for a long running political and military disaster.

The dominant image in the U.S., the one articulated by Bush and co-ideologues in the attack's aftermath, was that a great nation was attacked by horrible people who hated this great nation for everything that made it great. This sense of exceptionalism and ahistoricism, that our tragedy is qualitatively "unique," has buttressed eight years of cultural chauvinism and war that ranks as extreme even in the context of a rather checkered history of U.S. foreign policy.

The global propagation of this 9/11 image has caused some distress in Latin America and other parts of the world. In claiming that 9/11 was a unique tragedy, we belittle the tragedies of others. In claiming that 9/11 was a crime against an innocent nation, we render our support for brutal dictatorships in Latin America and other parts of the world invisible.

September elevenths took place on other dates throughout Latin America: Guatemala (June 27, 1954), Argentina (March 24, 1976) and the dirty wars in Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador of the 1980s, to name some prominent examples.

In Chile, too, September 11th is a complicated symbol and an enduring political legacy. President Michelle Bachelet, whose father was tortured to death by the regime, today inaugurated a President Salvador Allende White Room in the presidential palace, La Moneda. The room, an exact replica from September 1973, will be a permanent reminder of what a small part of Chile looked like on the day democracy was overthrown.

But it will take more than a yearly ceremony to exorcise Chile's ghosts. The coup destroyed a dream of a democratic and socialist Chile. The "transition to democracy" that began 18 years ago was forged on the Right's conditions: a binomial electoral system that excludes the Left (akin to the U.S. two party system), a neoliberal economic system that favors private education, the privatization of natural resources, and so on.

According to Chilean professor �lvaro Cuadra, "September 11th has not ended in our country. It is present in every line of the constitution...In the Chile of today, there is peace neither for the dead nor for the living."

35 years later, the U.S. army occupies the countries of two toppled governments. Of course, neither the Taliban or Saddam's regime was progressive or democratic. Regardless, the pain and death inflicted is on some basic level the same, inflicted by a country with an unfortunate combination of limited geographical awareness and boundless military imagination.

Could September 11th instead be an opportunity to reflect upon the suffering and perseverance that unites us as humans? Putting aside the taunts such a suggestion would provoke from Bill O'Reilly and the like, wouldn't such a remembrance be a more human tribute to the dead, more human that having your name embroidered on an American Flag of Heroes?

We should not interpret overseas reminders of the existence of "other September elevenths" as insensitivity to the 2,974 people who died in the twin towers -- most of who were, unlike our government, innocent. Instead, we should take this opportunity to reflect on the need for a more just foreign policy and a world where no one has to suffer through burning buildings or torture chambers.

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