Matt Stoller is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. You can follow him on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/matthewstoller
Yesterday, we hit a turning point in the war on drugs. Pro-legalization Democratic Congressional candidate Beta O’Rourke defeated eight term Democratic incumbent Silvestre Reyes in a bitterly fought and exceptionally vicious primary yesterday in a Texas border district, where the war on drugs was a central issue.
Nearly everyone in Congress and in the Executive branch knows the war on drugs is stupid and/or ineffective and/or corrupt, but very few will speak out against it. I mean, most of them have used illegal drugs at some point in the past. There are many reasons for this reticence, one of which is that every member seemingly has some story about seeing some pro-legalization candidate get destroyed in an election, with the idea that drug legalization is a fringe position akin to establishing a Department of Peace or abolishing the CIA. There are also huge sums of money behind the war on drugs, from the pro-meth pharmaceutical lobby that uses “blood money” to keep selling addictive chemicals to the massive defense contractor and predator drone industry that wants to militarize the borders to police departments that like their drug war money to the banking system itself that launders drug money.
But mostly, ending the drug war is seen as a fool’s errand. It’s not even a debate, it’s so fringe. Here’s Barack Obama mocking people on the internet for caring about drug legalization. But the war on drugs is a key architectural pillar of the authoritarian parts of our government. Since most people have used illegal drugs, a government can choose who to imprison based on selective prosecution, without any real debate in our political system. A lack of debate is key to sustaining the war on drugs.
We might have just seen the end of this dynamic of shameful silence.
This race in Texas is important, because many factors were stacked in favor of the drug warrior. Reyes, the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee and a member of the Unmanned Systems Caucus in Congress (the Predator Drone caucus) is a proponent of militarizing the border and sending in drones to Mexico to kill cartel leaders.
“We have to do what we’ve done essentially in Pakistan, and that is start taking out the heads of the cartels,” said Reyes, whose four-year tenure as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee ended in December. That, he said, is what it will take to end the cartel drug wars that have caused 35,000 deaths and brought Juárez and other Mexican towns and cities to their knees since 2008.
Asked if he meant employing the kind of drone missile strikes that have been effective but hugely unpopular in Pakistan, Reyes told El Paso Inc., “I wouldn’t rule that out.”
This debate over the war on drugs was not incidental in the race. O’Rourke has argued that drug laws increase profits for Mexican drug cartels and increase violence; Reyes used this stance to run ads against O’Rourke using children shaking their heads and saying “just say no” to drugs. The Nancy Reagan-esque messaging did not cause O’Rourke to run fearfully, instead, O’Rourke stood his ground and made the argument that the drug war causes murder on the other side of the border. That O’Rourke won is, politically speaking, like seeing a dog walk on his hind legs. This just isn’t supposed to happen.
What makes this even more impressive is that Reyes was endorsed by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. In primaries, these kinds of endorsements are exceptionally important, because people in Democratic primaries like and trust Democratic leaders. That the voters threw out an ardent drug warrior despite such endorsements and without an obvious scandal is a very powerful statement about the change in political atmosphere around the war on drugs.
There are many reasons to be happy that Reyes lost. He is and was an awful Congressman, both stupid and craven. As Democratic leader of the Intelligence Committee, Reyes did not know the group Hezbollah, and he didn’t know whether Al Qaeda was Sunni or Shia. Reyes is a proponent of any number of authoritarian policies violating our civil liberties, and he is backed by predator drone cash. So if you like militarizing, well, everything, then Reyes is your man. And this has been the trend recently.
So it’s nice to see voters choose peace over war, and an end the war on drugs. Now that a candidate won a significant race while arguing for drug decriminalization, it’s going to be increasingly more difficult for politicians to avoid debating the issue. And that’s good.