Mexico’s Drug Policy in Flux, with Sylvia Longmire

November 10, 2015

Is smoking pot a fundamental human right? On Wednesday, November 4th Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that four individuals involved in a private cannabis club have the constitutional right to grow, sell, and smoke cannabis based on “the right to the free development of one’s personality.” The ruling was limited to the specific individuals who brought the suit, but it introduces a host of questions about what might happen if the trend toward broader marijuana legalization continues in Mexico.

Here to talk about the current political climate as it relates to drugs in Mexico is journalist and intelligence analyst Sylvia Longmire. Longmire specializes in Mexico’s drug war, and provides valuable insight not only into this latest development, but also the particular quirks of the Mexican legal system, and the potential repercussions of Mexican drug legalization on cartels, the illegal drug trade, and drug policies in the U.S.

This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, November 10th, 2015. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live and the podcast hashtag We the People Live. And this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. And this episode is brought to you by Casper, the Mattress Company. You can go to Casper dot com and use offer code inquiry to get fifty dollars off your order. Now, last week, the Mexican Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling finding a constitutional right to grow and distribute marijuana for personal use. This is the latest in a series of steps throughout Latin America that push back against the war on drugs policies that the United States has demanded throughout the region. Even at the same time as here in the United States, of course, marijuana laws are being relaxed and regions like New England are being ravaged by one of the worst hard drug epidemics that this country has ever seen. So I wanted to step back and speak with someone who really understands the war on drugs, especially in Mexico, and who can talk to us about what a rational scientific approach to minimizing the harm of drugs might look like. Sylvia Longmire is a former Air Force captain and former special agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. Her particular focus is Mexican drug trafficking. She’s now the head of a consulting firm that provides analysis of Mexico’s drug war and border security. Her books are border insecurity. Why big money fences and Drones Aren’t Making US Safer and cartel the coming invasion of Mexico’s drug wars. 

So let’s just begin with, I guess, the impact of what happened last week. Do you think that that’s likely to to change anything? 

I think it’s not going to change anything, at least legislatively, from the day to day life. All of a sudden, people are not going to be able to start smoking pot whenever they want. This was a very specific case that applies to for very specific people who actually brought the suit. However, it sets a legal precedent for my understanding. It was four out of the five judges that ruled in favor of the of the individuals who brought the suit. And it’s done two things. Yet it sets the legal precedent because of that decision and case law and the way that the legal system works in Mexico for down the road to use that to possibly legalize marijuana at the national level. I don’t see that happening in the next year or two, anything like that. 

And just just to clarify, any laws that are currently on the books in Mexico that prohibit a person from consuming their own marijuana surely are now unconstitutional, even if there hasn’t been a legislative change that permits the wholesale development and cultivation and selling of cannabis? Right. 

Yeah. It’s still illegal to do it because the only people capable, the only organizations or agencies capable of changing the federal laws with regards to the consumption are the president and the Mexican Congress. So so, yeah, it’s still it. Now, Mexico very quietly decriminalized small amounts of personal use for almost all drugs. This was back in 2009. But that really didn’t make any changes. It certainly didn’t make it any easier to go after criminals and and drug traffickers and things like that. But for practive, for all for all intents and purposes, if you want to go smoke pot and you’re not one of the four people that brought suit in this particular case, unless it’s under that amount, you’re still going to get in a lot of trouble if you have a lot of pot in your house. Yeah. If you have a look. 

But if it’s under that amount, I mean, it strikes me a little bit that you could make an analogy from what you’re saying, to say that, you know, if you’re a gay couple in America and you want to get married and you’re not actually one of the people who you’re not, oh, be careful who actually brought the suit against the U.S. government and took it to the Supreme Court, then you can’t get married. I mean, we have a judicial system which exists in order to to overturn laws. And the Mexican Supreme Court has overturned the law, which says that it’s against the law to cultivate and smoke small amounts of marijuana. So presumably that applies to everyone. 

It does not. It does not. And that’s Mexico’s legal system is very, very different than ours. So it’s it’s really kind of a rag tag combination of Napoleonic line and case law and Roman law. It’s very different than it is here. So just because of that decision, it doesn’t overturn anything. As I mentioned, the only way for that law at the federal level to be changed is for Congress or the president to do it. 

So, I mean, it’s a bit weird to have a Supreme Court that can’t strike down a law. I mean, if they say that the law is struck down and if they find in the Constitution a constitutional right for Mexicans to be able to consume small quantities of marijuana in the privacy of their own homes, what does that mean? 

If it doesn’t render redundant the law that would arrest people for doing that, it just means that it’s time to maybe start looking at the current law a little bit differently as far as how effective it is. These were four very these were four individuals that had formed a cannabis club and they used kind of the equivalent of the First Amendment in their suit because they wanted to be able I can’t remember the exact wording, something about being able to express their personality or something like that. 

Yeah, there’s always must little clause in the Mexican well. So I think it’s just sort of sweet in the Mexican constitution, which is sort of their version of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Right. But it’s got to do with a sense of your own sort of flourishing, right? 

Yeah. Yeah, pretty much. But those were the only four people who brought the suit. So the ruling applies only to those four people. It doesn’t have a broader application. And I mean, you can. You can. It may sound silly or sound absurd, but like I said, the legal system, the way it works in Mexico is not like it is in the United States. So so you have the laws would have to be changed at a completely different level and through a different procedure in order to make that kind of ruling apply to everyone in Mexico. 

Got it. OK. So can you just explain to people who aren’t familiar with cannabis, social clubs what that is? Because I know they’re popular in Barcelona. Right. But it’s a very different thing from arguing that you have a right to cultivate. 

So advertise, promote weed. 

Sure. And I’m not an expert on this particular thing. I can just tell you kind of vaguely what I what my understanding is, is just that it’s almost like a collective I guess a group of people they’re not authorized in general to to grow their own stuff. It’s still illegal. But if they get together somewhere private and they smoke or use or whatever, the cannabis in private without any kind of dealing or trafficking or anything that can be interpreted as such, then it’s kind of like a subscription service or a membership service or something along those lines. So it’s very particular. And I wish I could give you a little bit more about the legal leaves, but that’s that’s. The extent of my understanding of how those clubs work. 

Yeah, that’s right. So what do you think that the cartels in Mexico are making you face, if anything? 

Well, the cartels, they’re in this for the long game. And nothing changes in Mexico or in Latin American general. Overnight, nothing does. And if anything, change in Latin America happens at a snail’s pace compared to how slow things change, especially legislative here legislatively here in the United States. 

So when something like this starts happening, you know, even in the US where things move a little bit faster and you see the expansion of medicinal marijuana. Now, the legalization of marijuana, state by state, they’re already planning for this. Marijuana is not their biggest moneymaker. It accounts for the largest volume of drugs that are coming across the southwest border. The cartels control vast swaths of land where marijuana plants are being roam. But if all of a sudden, you know, I mean, it’s not going to happen all of a center, let’s say it’s legalized across Mexico. It makes it easier for them to grow it. That’s for sure. And ship it to the United States if it’s still illegal here. And I don’t know at least what half of the states and such, but they’ll find a way to make money off of it on the legal side. You know, that’s what Al Capone did after prohibition was repealed. They were still making money, doing other things. So I think the cartels are planning for it. I think they still know how to make money and they’re they’ll shift instead of marijuana. If the value of it goes down, if it’s legalized until the shift to their biggest money makers right now, which is heroin and methamphetamine. And they’ll keep pumping that stuff out in greater quantities to keep the cash coming in. 

When you say that they might make money out of it legally. Are you envisioning that if there were, for example, legal marijuana in Mexico? Let’s suppose, perhaps even in the United States one day that they would set up official shopfronts and become sort of Wal-Mart of marijuana at the same time as they were continuing the illicit drug smuggling practices with all the other stuff to legal. 

Oh, of course. And you use the very word that I was going to use the Wal-Mart ization of marijuana. You know, we’ve got big tobacco here in the US. You know, the companies that run cigarets and big, big alcohol. Who’s to say that it has to be a US conglomerate that’s in charge of running the legal marijuana business? From what I understand, the killer, they’re a Colombian crime groups that are already starting to get their hands involved in Colorado’s legal weed trade. I mean, at least at the state level anyway. So why not if there’s money to be made, obviously, the demand is still there. It would make complete sense for the catarrh cartels, even though the profit margin will be lower. But there’s still a lot of money to be made with legal weed. So why wouldn’t the cartels get involved? 

I mean, part of my understanding of the reason why cartels were able to be successful is because they are filling a niche that legal, legitimate companies can’t. Right. I mean, you know, this is part of the argument against the war on drugs. The only thing that’s keeping them alive is the fact that the fact that they have a monopoly on an illegal substance. If the substance were no longer illegal. If it were regulated, you’d have people who don’t behead other people in control of it. So the people who do. Are you suggesting that even if we ended the war on drugs, that the cartels would still be major players? 

I don’t know that they would be as major as they are now, but they could still undercut on price. I mean, there are so many different ways, like let’s take a look at the pharmaceutical industry, OK? And just to kind of be very specific, let’s take a look at OxyContin. All right. It’s an opiate, highly addictive. And. But it’s perfectly legal as long as you have a prescription. Now, there is a black market for prescription drugs. Everybody knows that. Actually, more people are dying from overdoses of legal drugs in the US than they are from all illegal drugs combined. So now they’re bringing in Mexican heroin to fill the need. Because OxyContin is getting more expensive than heroin. That’s how they’re working that. That’s a legal market that they’re working to undercut. So if there is a legal market for weed, you know, who’s to say that they won’t either cheapen it or just make it slightly lower quality? Some more people that can’t afford the hydroponically grown stuff, the real quality stuff, it’s still going to be expensive. If you go to a shop in Colorado and Denver or Washington or whatever. It’s not cheap. Just because it’s legal, it is still pretty expensive. So if Mexico can grow this stuff in mass quantities, which is what it’s doing right now. Still, the states where it has been legalized and even at the medicinal level, there is no way that anybody is growing that kind of volume as they are in Mexico. So it’s just like you said, it’s the Wal-Mart effect. And I think that they can still find a way to make money off of it, even if it’s a perfectly legal market. 

Why doesn’t that happen with other legal markets? I was sort of I was thinking I was musing to myself about tobacco these days because I used to smoke occasionally. And it was it was ridiculous to see myself spending twelve dollars, which it is in New York State now. Now it’s hard to buy a packet of cigarets. I thought, well, I mean, if cartels move in when marijuana is too expensive and they just undercut the official regulatory text price, why doesn’t that happen with tobacco? Why doesn’t it happen with booze still? 

I just think it’s because, first of all, it’s it’s incredibly strictly regulated. Second of all, you don’t have as many you don’t have a kind of major players, at least not with the cigarets. With alcohol, you have a lot, but everybody’s using it. I mean, you said not not everybody smokes, but I would venture to say that the majority of Americans have alcohol every so often. And there are a lot of smokers out there. So I think it’s just because it’s more socially acceptable, more people are keeping an eye on it. And then you still have the chronic users, the top 20 percent of smokers, top 20 percent of drinkers that are providing the vast majority of the profits. But because it’s so widely available and tobacco and alcohol are so widely popular, you have a ton of competition, at least in the alcohol sector, if not so much, then I actually have a lot of competitors in the cigaret sector as far as group individual brands and stuff, but only a few main companies. So I think that there’s something out there for every price point in both cases. But you’ll see alcoholics and real addicts. They’ll do anything they can just to get that next drink if they’re really addicted. And the same thing goes for for illegal drugs. And I can. 

Yeah. I mean, it may also just be the difficulty of of moving such large, such physically large packages, because I also the fact that there’s no sort of existing infrastructure to do so, because I mean, I have friends who are recreational drug users who can get anything from the hit from their drug dealer, not just to not just marijuana or how to drugs, but, you know, pharmaceuticals and so on, as you were mentioning, oxycodone stuff. And I sometimes wonder, why don’t they get a carton of cigarets for one tenth price? That’s on text. But it’s it’s a physically large thing. 

And I was talking about the drug epidemic in New England with a specialist up there who is saying that one of the real tragedies of this of this crisis that you see in New Hampshire and some other states in New England is that the pills are so easy to get in. So small is so simple. There’s such an easy thing to transport, as is heroin, that these these are small communities that are being devastated. And one of the interesting things that I’ve noticed this year is that because the presidential election begins in New Hampshire and Iowa, a lot of presidential candidates have started at least paying lip service to the idea of having to crack down on Oxy Škoda, of having to empathize more with the struggle of people who are in New England who are addicted to heroin and maybe start even reevaluating the drug war. Have you do you think that there’s a shift going on now? The middle? Plus, New England, what people are suffering from drug addiction rather than poor black people in cities? 

Oh, completely. And I wish I could remember where I read the article. This was only about a week or so ago. 

Isn’t one of the majors. It was in last weekend’s New York Times, I think. 

OK. OK. I mean, you talk about a really excellent article and it’s it’s really tragic that it has to. That all of a sudden this addiction and these consequences have to hit, you know, white middle class, upper middle class America before people start paying attention. You know, I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I don’t get into that. The race card or racism or anything like that. But, you know, the reality is what it is. And all of a sudden. OK. You know, is white America going to pay attention if it’s a poor black junky under, you know, under an overpass and a really bad neighborhood? If those are the ones who are dying, is white America going to pay as much attention? In my opinion, the reality is. Probably not. But if it’s all of a sudden high school, teen age white girls with blond hair who are cheerleaders and the straight-A students, if those are the kids that are starting to die, all of a sudden we’re like, hey, holy crap, we have a problem. And it’s again, it’s sad that that’s what it takes. But that’s what’s happening right now. And the people whose children are being affected, they’re the ones who actually have the leverage. Just, you know, just like the article said, they have the leverage and the power to make a stink about it and to start writing their legislators, to start contacting the media and just start getting the word out that, hey, this is this is not just marijuana that’s making their way into parties. This is hardcore stuff that’s killing our kids. And I think it’s a complete shift in the way that we’re looking at drug addiction, at the way the drugs are being distributed, and how Mexican cartels are seeing a new market open and how they’re so easily able to exploit that in places that we never would have imagined that they’d show up. 

I know that your specialty is in the southwest and Mexico, not the northeast epidemic. But do you know where all this stuff is coming from? Look, I. I’m simply unaware of how these volumes of heroin are making it into the Northeast. 

Oh, sure. A lot of the heroin, a lot of the heroin is coming from Mexico. There’s still some heroin that comes to the United States from from Afghanistan. That’s still a big producer. 

What does the Afghan heroin get him? Does it come in by or does it come across the border? 

That is not you know, the Afghan heroin is not coming. It’s coming by air or by far by by vessel. It is not coming from from Mexico. The stuff coming from Mexico was actually produced in Mexico. So it’s totally different. But, yeah, it’s a it’s a national network. Not typically the Northeast and the Southeast are. Those are the territories for criminal organizations, cartels, et cetera, that emanate from the Caribbean and Colombia. But now the Mexican cartels, the Mexican drug distributors are starting to work their way into the northeast. So as it is, the Mexican cartels are providing roughly 90 percent of illegal drugs that are being consumed here and now with the increasing popularity of the black tar variety and now the white powder heroin that’s coming from Mexico. The demand is there. And Mexican couriers and people who are working, they don’t even know that they’re working for the cartels. That’s just what they do. They just drive this stuff around and they sell it to sell it to the users. That’s how they’re they’re getting over there. And it’s all in combination because the prescription opiates like OxyContin are they’re more expensive on the street than a little balloon of heroin. That is anywhere from 40 to 70 percent pure. So it’s really good marketing. It’s it’s also it doesn’t even have to be injected anymore. It can be snorted. It could be smoked. So that eliminates the association with the needle sticking out of a junky’s arm or whatever. It kind of gets rid of that stigma. So it’s a lot more attractive than it used to be and it’s a lot easier to get. 

Is it as dangerous to smoke? 

I think it’s equally as dangerous no matter how you get it into your body. Do you have a really high chance it is going to hurt you really bad or it’s going to kill you no matter how you get it into your system? 

So we finally were, heaven forbid, to walk out of my front door after this interview and get hit by a bus. I would be taken to hospital. And one of the things I would be given would be morphine, which is basically heroin. And you’re coming up. And it wouldn’t have any long term deleterious effect on me and I wouldn’t really feel the need to go to school. Heroin is that pharmacologically because it’s so pure. And if so, were it regulated and administered via prescription by doctors? Could we avoid most of the downsides of street heroin? 

Now, I have to I have to caveat my comments by saying that I’m not an addiction expert. I’ve read a lot about the effects of drugs on the body and different levels of addiction and how addiction addiction works. 

But just to let your audience know that that’s not generally my my area of expertize, but drugs affect everybody differently. You know, you can have a list of 50 side effects and some people will have none. Some people have 10. We’ll have all of them. Different people have different tolerances for drugs that are addictive. You can have cocaine. People think that cocaine is seriously addictive. It’s physically not addictive. It is psychologically addictive. So you can have somebody that can casually use cocaine, like maybe, you know, on weekends or a couple times a month just to go out and party. And they will never experience that addictive need for it. Now, heroin is an all opiates and morphine and any kind of opiate derivative. Those are much more addictive. And there are some people that can do, you know, shoot up heroin once and they’re hooked for life. Some people that get a drip of morphine and yet it’s regulated by doctors and they get tested, that they get monitored. And it’s a lot easier to control that way. And that’s why morphine is legal to give. But using the current schedule that the DEA uses to determine how useful a drug is for, let’s say, treating pain. How addictive is it? That’s how they determine how those drugs can be controlled. Even LSD has a has a medical purpose. Even ecstasy, you know, people go to take it. Nightclubs and stuff. Even ecstasy has a legal purpose for people, say, who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It helps them to communicate and bond with family members and with loved ones and more openly express their their emotions and their trauma. So I think that there are a lot of drugs out there that we just look as recreational educated that do have some at least a little bit of medical use and can be controlled. But there are a lot of people addicted to prescription drugs that either just the way that their body is made up and makes them more likely. Even alcohol, if there’s a history of addiction, a history of alcoholism in a family, it makes somebody more susceptible to become an alcoholic themselves. So I think it’s just a case by case basis. 

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So now that we’ve established that framework of the heroin crisis in America, let’s just pivot back to what you are an expert in, which is Mexican drug violence. And how is that been changing over the past 10 years, how the cartels been evolving and why is the level of violence in Mexico in the past decade been so horrific? 

Well, let me let me back up a little bit. When the cartels, as kind of we know them now, really started. I mean, drug trafficking has been going on in Mexico since the nineteen hundreds, the late eighteen hundreds. So that’s that’s not new. But what we would call a cartel, those go back to maybe the 1970s, 1980s. And during that time and up until maybe the late 1990s, early 2000s, you had the cartels that were in control were pretty much a family business. 

They operated pretty much like the Italian mafia and the Russian mob. And a more traditional organized crime structures. And they followed a certain set of unspoken rules when it came to initiating violence and and retaliation and things like that. And it was very rare to see any innocent bystanders get caught up in that mix. It was either the violence directed or at police officers or the government if they tried to arrest them or capture them or violence directed at rivals or snitches, et cetera. Well, in the last especially in the last five years and particularly in the last 10, 12, 15 years since those cities came into existence, where all of these cartels are now either hiring these armed thugs to do their dirty work for them or a lot of these cartels are splintering. And the spin offs, as you were, there are just dozens and dozens of them now instead of just a few major old school mafia type cartels. These smaller groups, all they see is the money and they have no interest. They’re not family run. They don’t they don’t abide by the same rules. All they want to do is make money. So if they see an opportunity and making money through kidnaping and ransom operations, they don’t care who they kidnap. They just want to kidnap somebody that is going to bring them money. Extortion of business owners. They’ll look for somebody who they think is bringing in a lot of cash and they’ll require that person to pay them thousands of pesos, maybe once a month, once a week. If they don’t, they’ll kidnap him and torture until they cough up the money. And if they don’t cough up the money, they’ll kill them. That’s not how the old school cartels operated. You know, a lot of them aren’t even remotely interested in kidnaping for ransom because that’s just not a good way to do business. So that’s what concerns me, is how they’ve evolved. Now, you’ve got all these criminal groups that they don’t care about directly ambushing and targeting the military and the government as opposed to just kind of defending their operations. They don’t care about drawing attention to themselves by targeting innocent people for slaughter. It’s become a free for all. And it’s no longer a war that’s being fought with unspoken rules where the violence can somewhat be managed and confined to illegal actors. Now, anybody can be a victim to the violence, and that is incredibly disturbing. 

We are a show whose audience is prides itself on being rational and secular and non hysterical and try to find the most reasonable solutions to things, which is part of what the Senate inquiry tries to do as a nonprofit. So if one were to put on one’s rationalist hat and try to figure out a policy solution to that, let’s just start with Mexico. Let’s ignore the United States right now or through contact with the United States, because if the U.S. war on drugs is integral to the problem, then feel free to go there as well. What would the policy prescription be? 

Well, one of the foundations for a lot of issues and not just Mexico, but throughout Latin America is the extensive corruption. And I always say that trying to reduce or eliminate corruption in Mexico, excuse me, and elsewhere in Latin America is like trying to reduce or eliminate drug abuse and drug use in the United States. I mean, it’s an uphill battle all the way. It is something that is deeply entrenched in society, in civil society and in history. I mean, corruption in Mexico goes back hundreds and hundreds of years to before Mexico was even colonized by this by the Spaniards. So all efforts to minimize or even significantly reduce corruption in Mexico has really failed. And as a result of that, you have corrupt police officers, people who cannot enforce the law and in many cases are actively working with crime groups. But that, you know, eliminating corruption, reducing poverty and offering educational and job opportunities for kids who would otherwise become a huge recruitment pool for the cartels. 

I think that’s a more practical solution. We through the METI, the initiative we’re pumping. I think one point four, one point seven, I can’t remember the exact number. Billion dollars into trying to help Mexico and other countries in Central America to to fight the cartels. But it’s mostly from an interdiction perspective. I would like to see more money being spent on. Educational institutions, justice reform is happening, but it’s happening extremely slowly and providing more job opportunities and educational opportunities for people who would otherwise go and work for the cartels to kind of starve them for resources in that regard, because interdiction, in my opinion, just isn’t working. 

Trying to reduce the drug demand and affect the drug war. From that angle here in the United States. That’s not gonna happen. I don’t think that’s particularly practical. Why? 

Why do you say that? I mean, obviously, it’s not it’s not going to happen that we’re able to reduce the desire for a significant minority of Americans to snort happy drugs up their nose or to inject in order smoke it. But it is conceivable that you could address the demand by taking the demand away from illegal cartels, by regulating it in some manner, putting it in the hands of medical professionals, having some kind of a prescription system without those laws. 

Right. Yeah. I mean, and, you know, and let’s let’s take a look at that angle. You know, let’s take a look at. All right. If I’m all in favor personally anyway, I’m all in favor of legalizing marijuana strictly because from from a health perspective, from an addiction perspective, I don’t think it’s any more dangerous than alcohol or tobacco. I think that’s a pretty hypocritical stance that we have against marijuana. 

It’s purely that’s where I’m coming from with that. I have no idea, or at least I have no firm opinion about other drugs. But for for argument’s sake, let’s say you do that if you were to convert legally, if all of a sudden you were to legalize all the drugs that the cartels in Mexico are involved in and take away that black market. 

Our public health system isn’t even set up right now to deal with all the people who currently need treatment. So even treating it as a we’re not even being we’re not even able to treat that. Is that a public health issue for the people right now? If you if you can imagine taking everybody else that if you were to legalize everything and start coming at it from a public health perspective, our health system is in no way, shape or form even remotely prepared to handle that. Now you can say, OK, all the money that’s being poured into drug interdiction and the justice system for prosecuting drug, you’re reading my mind. Shift that over to the public health system, OK? You know, you have more clinics, you have more doctors, you have more addiction specialists. It can be done. It can’t be done. But you still go back to just kind of the historical American mentality that drugs are bad. OK. And getting that shifts to happen in the moral aspect of American society. That’s a that’s a hard sell. That’s a hard sell. Not so I’m not saying that moving the drug use to a regulated system and as a public health issue, I’m not saying that wouldn’t work. All I’m saying is that getting America to buy in on it as the right idea, I think we’re a long way off. 

So Jeb Bush gave a speech within the past week in which he was quite heartfelt about the trials and tribulations that his family has had with drugs. You mentioned that, that, you know, lifting social justice warrior is going to play a race card. I know that you write for Bright, but sort of know what your politics are. But it strikes me that it doesn’t really matter where one’s political affiliation is. This seems to be, I think, and you may disagree as sort of growing consensus on both the left and the libertarian right that whatever we’re doing right now isn’t particularly working. And we got to find we got to grope a way towards some other solution, if not for Mexico, than at least for us. Do you have a sense of what that might look like? And are you as optimistic as I am? 

Oh, I just I wish I did because I’ve been making a lot more money. You know, at least just for the record, you know, politically speaking, I’m in and I’m a registered independent. And, you know, that’s that’s I think just to the nature of my my job as an analyst is to take all sides into account. 

So on some things, you’ll hear me talk and you’ll think like, wow, she’s really on the left and other things like, wow, she’s really on the right. So, you know, I write for places where I where hopefully people will read my message and and try to learn something from it. So I come from a rational fact based perspective. When I talk about this stuff and I think that’s important, I know like like Jeb Bush, there are a lot of people who have been impacted by the war on drugs and by drug use. And I have to agree that we all once you get to a point where it’s just it’s not working, you have to you. What’s the date? There’s somebody out. Remember who it was? It said the definition of insanity is you try something over and over and over again. You’re hoping to get a different result. 

It’s usually attributed to Einstein, although I haven’t fact checked them. 

Yeah. But either way, it’s a really good it’s a really good quote. And my family’s from Cuba. 

And so I see that with the embargo. You know, same thing. I grew up in a very right wing conservative family and they’re still extraordinarily anti embargo are anti against lifting the embargo analysts in this and like, well, guess what? That hasn’t worked either. So it’s not. That argument can be made not just for the drug war, but for any policy, whether it’s foreign policy, economic policy, fine fiscal policy, whatever the case is. 

If you do it for so long and it’s not accomplishing whatever the initial objective was, well, let’s sit down and revisit instead of throwing millions, if not billions of taxpayer dollars in a direction that it’s clearly not happening. We’re starting to see a lot of that frustration with other countries in Latin America. You know, Uruguay completely legalized marijuana and I believe other drugs and Uruguay is kind of a blip on the international radar. So it’s kind of an interesting test case. It’s not a major drug producer or or trafficking zone or anything like that, but they’re fed up. And there are a lot of other countries that are have that violence going on within their borders that we don’t we don’t live it everyday like they do. And they’re like, this is this has got to change. We don’t know. And I think that they may not even know what the changes they can say. Well, the first change that seems the easiest to do or the most logical is to start legalizing and remove the black market and see if that works. The risk is, is if it doesn’t work, then what? And that’s what I think. That’s what scares a lot of people is, is legalization is the plan B, and I don’t know if there’s a plan C for a lot of these countries. And are you able to all of a sudden go back to making everything illegal if legalization doesn’t work? So, yeah, I do agree that there’s a there’s a great need for some kind of change because the current the war on drugs, the way that it’s being fought right now is not. 

Nothing good is coming out of it in the long term or overall. So, see, I wish I knew what the right change would be, but I certainly agree that it’s not working. 

I mean, I wonder whether you out as you speak. I’m sort of just thinking off the cuff that, you know, part of the real conundrum that we’ve got here is that each country makes its own policies towards criminalization or decriminalization or illegal immigration, but that, you know, demand doesn’t care about borders and supply doesn’t care about borders. 

So it’s almost like, you know, it doesn’t really matter what Colombia does as long as a significant proportion of America, which is is such a massive population, wants to continue using the drugs. It’s almost like a token gesture. So these experiments. It’ll be interesting. Has there been any attempt for a policy prescription to be devised that goes across all of the borders that isn’t just, let’s say no to drugs and let’s make sure that we punish them as much as possible? Could there be some kind of a framework in which the United States and Canada and Mexico and Central America and maybe all of Latin American South America got together and all of the key players said, alright, well, let’s just let’s just try X, Y, Z. 

Yeah. Unfortunately, no. And a lot of that is as a result of the single and I can’t remember the exact order of the words, but I think the single narcotics convention for the United Nations that was signed in 1961. Right now I believe it’s one hundred and eighty six countries that are signatories to this convention. 

And it’s got several pages. But the summary of what the convention says is that whoever signs to it says that you’re going to have national drug policy, national policy is in place that make drugs illegal to to use, to cultivate, to distribute, et cetera, et cetera. So Uruguay obviously had to withdraw from the convention in order to do what they’re doing. Bolivia withdrew temporarily several years ago because growing coca and using coca is a big part of the indigenous culture there. Although now Bolivia is becoming a larger cocaine producing country. And despite what Evo Morales says, that they was zero, plenty of coca, but zero cocaine. Good luck making that happen. But even for a small country, again, like I said, Uruguay, internationally speaking, is not as significant as Russia or China or the United States or something like that. 

But it was a big deal for them to have to withdraw from that convention because that’s that’s really sticking it to, you know, not only the United Nations, which a lot of people don’t even really care about, but sticking it to the United States and the impact of that on the repercussions of that when it comes to bilateral trade and other programs that United States is funding. 

There’s a lot of resentment in Latin America because of the the influence that the United States has in the Western Hemisphere, and although that although the United States does not dictate policy to Mexico or Bolivia or Uruguay or any other country, every country has their own sovereign nation. But I think it’s incredibly naive to think that there is no influence there, that there that there isn’t any persuasion going on. 

And I can assure you, you know, as we was we were speaking on Huff Post Live last week. And, you know, one of the points that I made was that the perspective of someone who comes from a medium sized country is really different. It’s difficult for Americans to understand just how how powerful, what America wants you to do, because to be in the millions of small countries that are heavily reliant on trade with America, not even aid with America, it’s not like Australia. Micah, my home country gets any aid from America, but there are so many things that America can do. Make your life so much easier. Issue new visa classes for all of your people to be able to easily come here and work if they want to, and give you free trade agreements that suddenly boost your economy by the Australian United States. Free trade agreement probably boosted the U.S. economy by a fraction of a percentage point and the Australian economy by 20 percent something because it’s the 12th largest economy in the world instead of the largest. But so I just wanna get your thoughts on two things very quickly before we go. So one of your books was called Border Insecurity and subtitled Why Big Money Fences and Drones Aren’t Making US Safer in the Current Political Climate. 

There’s a lot of talk about the border, thanks to Donald Trump largely. Can you just sort of briefly give us a sketch of what would make us safer? 

Sure. A couple of things. Versus actually making border security a national priority. I mean, there’s there’s a lot of lip service being paid to border security right now, again, because of the election election and Donald Trump and even for the outlandish things that he occasionally says. One of the things that at least I like about the fact he’s making these outlandish statements is at least people are talking about it. People are more interested now in illegal immigration and all the things that go along with it and all the different the pros and the cons and all the subtleties in between is at least people are talking about it. They weren’t talking about it this much during the last election run. So that conversation kind of breeds ideas and ideas, hopefully breed solutions. So getting it on the main radar, getting the highest levels of U.S. government to say, hey, this needs to be a priority, maybe it might lead them to an actual strategy. You know, there is no one comprehensive strategy for dealing with the Southwest border and only, I think in 2012 was there a comprehensive strategy that was issued for the northern border. 

And so that’s that’s pretty frustrating. And then the other aspect that I think and it’s really the main focus, or at least the main theory from my book, is that we’re not approaching border security from a threat based perspective. The vast majority of the people who are crossing the border are immigrants, what I call egen economic migrants who have no criminal history that are either coming to reunite with family, to go to school, to find jobs, to send money back home. Those individuals, in my opinion, don’t pose a national security threat to the US. Yet we’re treating them as a law enforcement problem. So all the resources that we’re throwing at the border, whether it’s technology, whether it’s boots on the ground, the vast majority of what who those people are dealing with are people who are not criminals and don’t pose a threat to our national security. I would much rather have those very hard working Border Patrol agents, Customs and Border Protection agents at the ports of entry. I’d much rather have them be going after the bad guys, the guys with the guns, the guys with the drugs and immigration reform. 

If we can figure out a way eventually to make that happen to where we’re dealing with that as a legislative issue and as a policy issue, and you remove that from the realm of law enforcement, then all of a sudden you’re able to scale down and really, really focus the law enforcement agencies on what the real threat is, which is cartel members, drug traffickers, rapists, murderers and individuals that are affiliated in some way with terrorist organizations and coming here to raise money for groups like Hezbollah. 

One of the weird things about growing up in a country like Australia, of course, is that the idea of having a border that is completely unsecured is just bizarre. So I don’t even regard. I don’t think that Donald Trump’s rhetoric is helpful here, because I think it. I don’t actually agree with you that it sort of gets the conversation on the table, because I think it gets the conversation on the table in such a divisive way that it doesn’t really that it so alienates anyone who is not willing to agree with him that it’s a bit more difficult to find common ground. But I’m I’m always teased by my sort of Huff Post liberal friends for being a hawk on on border security. I just don’t I’m very much in favor of very high levels of immigration, but very high levels of legal immigration where you’re picking the people you want to come. And the idea of people does wandering across an unsecured border to me just sort of it actually undermines the idea of being pro high immigration, because it means that you’re all of a sudden facing all kinds of problems that you wouldn’t have if you had an orderly immigration policy. But I suppose that’s a conversation for another day. The last thing that I’d love to get your thoughts on is when you talk to people about the war on drugs who are very, very pro prohibition. 

Is there a sense in which you’re sort of baffled by the reluctance to look at facts and data and what likely outcomes are actually going to be? Because when you talk about drugs are bad. 

Well, we all agree on that. What’s bad about them? Most of what’s bad about them is caused by the war on drugs or caused by the fact that you’re getting impure substances, care from, you know, from cartels who don’t know where it’s coming from. There is nothing necessary. There are a few things that are intrinsically bad about drugs, but that’s not mostly why they ruin people’s lives. Why aren’t people able to be rational about this subject? When people are mostly rational? Most other things, I think. 

Well, I don’t know if you know. Me. Let me let me let me let me distance myself from the last few words, if that’s it. Yeah. 

You know, I think it’s just because it’s a very emotional subject. I’ve read a couple of really great books about drug addiction policy, that one that I would recommend for anybody interested in learning more about how drugs affect the body and how harmful they are or are not drugs and drug policy. Everything you need to know. And it is so Eye-Opening to see that. I mean, like how the levels of addiction, non addiction, how much more addictive cigarets are than than marijuana. How much more addictive. You know, heroin is. And then, you know, even then cocaine. And just taking a look at what it actually does to the body and taking a look at the comparison, especially marijuana to alcohol and tobacco, it’s just it’s mind boggling how it’s been so demonized. I mean, and it’s been an educational process for me. I mean, I grew up in you know, this is this is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions? I mean, so many of us were were brought up with that and the current generation. And it’s just a mentality. And yeah, a lot of it has to do with the fact that because they’re not regulated, you have absolutely no idea what you’re getting. And one hit to the next can be completely different. And that’s that’s pretty scary because a lot of the deaths and the overdoses are coming from products that are laced with God knows what. I mean, I have seen anything and everything from talcum powder to Tylenol to cow tranquilizers and all sorts of crap that goes into some of these drugs. So that obviously makes it makes it pretty scary. But if people were to be and just to kind of limit it to the marijuana issue, I think if if people were more educated on the impact that other substances that we use without really paying much attention, how they compare to marijuana use, I think that’s kind of. 

It may change some people’s minds and not have it be this complete moral emotional circus and the negative stereotypes that come along with stoners and and marijuana users and things like that, that obviously doesn’t help either. So it’s all about education. And some people would prefer to take the word of either the media or their family members or their friends and don’t have the time or don’t have the interest to really dig a little bit deeper. 

All right. Let’s hope that the Mexico and the United States and Latin America are going to find a way to enjoy our way towards a more sane drug policy. Sylvia Longmire, it’s great to talk to you. Thanks for being on point of inquiry. Thank you so much. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.