Ground Hog Day in the Drug War

by | Jun 13, 2014


A news article this week entitled “South Laredo Trafficking Group Indicted” caught my attention. That’s because Laredo is my hometown. I spent 26 years there, including 8 years practicing law, most of which was in partnership with my father.

That newspaper article is about the drug war. It reports that an indictment was returned against 24 Laredoans for violations of federal drug laws. The indictment charges the defendants with distribution of cocaine, crack, and marijuana in the Laredo area.

As I read the article, I got the distinct impression that I was living “Ground Hog Day,” because this type of article was standard fare in Laredo when I was in high school in the late 1960s and then also when I returned to Laredo to practice law in 1975.

In fact, my very first trial, right out of law school, was a federal drug case in U.S. District Court in Laredo. Since the defendant could not afford a lawyer, the federal judge appointed me to represent him. My client was claiming he was innocent and went to trial. The jury acquitted him.

When I was in high school, my father served as U.S. magistrate. The line of people brought before him on federal drug charges (including Timothy Leary) always seemed to me to be endless. Part of the reason for this, my father told me, was relayed to him by the federal judge, who suspected that federal agents at the international bridge were planting drugs on long-haired hippies returning from Mexico. It was my first exposure to the corrupting nature of the drug war.

Of course, all those people needed lawyers, which meant a booming business for criminal-defense lawyers in Laredo. It also meant, of course, that federal judges, federal prosecutors, and DEA agents could justify their generous taxpayer-guaranteed salaries and pension plans.

In the late 1970s, a massive federal drug crackdown in Laredo caused drug dealers to move to Florida. That caused a severe depression — both economic and emotional — for Laredo’s criminal-defense lawyers.

What is so fascinating about the drug war is that nothing has changed over the past 40 years.

Well, I guess some things have changed. They have different federal judges and federal prosecutors in Laredo. And different DEA agents and local police and deputy sheriffs.

But nothing has changed in a fundamental sense. They’re doing the same thing they were doing 40 years ago. The same big drug busts. The same big press conferences. The same big pronouncements. The same newspaper articles about the latest big drug bust.

And all for what? What have all those drug busts accomplished? What have all those investigations by diligent DEA agents accomplished? What have all those drug prosecutions by angry federal prosecutors accomplished? What have all those long jail sentences meted out by indignant federal judges accomplished?

Nothing. They have accomplished nothing.

How do we know this? Because the basic pattern has just kept repeating itself over the years and over the decades. Investigations. Informants. Busts. Indictments. Prosecutions. Sentences. Over and over again.

And it’s not as though the federal prosecutors and federal judges were soft on crime back in the 1960s and 1970s. Thinking that they were doing their part to eradicate drugs from society, they were giving drug defendants sky-high jail sentences. There was a federal judge in San Antonio called “Maximum John.” Before he was ultimately assassinated as a result of a drug prosecution in his court, Maximum John gave a client of ours — a young man about 20 years old — the maximum sentence of 15 years for a conspiracy to distribute drugs.

What good did it do? Did it dissuade those 24 people mentioned in this week’s news article who allegedly distributed drugs 40 years later? Did it dissuade the countless people who did the same from the 1970s through today?

No. All that those high jail sentences that Maximum John meted out, along with his fellow federal judges, did was ruin lives. And that’s what the drug war has done—ruin lives. Everyone agrees that it certainly has done nothing to inhibit the supply of drugs or the consumption of drugs.

With its endless cycle of busts, prosecutions, and sentences, the drug war has been one gigantic, vicious machine that has ruined the lives of countless people, especially people in their 20s and 30s, many of whom end up spending a large portion of their lives in jail.

According to that article on this week’s drug bust in Laredo, there are 3 defendants in their teens, 7 in their 20s, 11 in their 30s, and 3 in their 40s. Many of them will likely spend the next 15-20 years of their lives in jail.

Why do they do it? Why do they take that type of risk? Because they’re poor and because they stand to make big money very quickly. That’s what drug laws do. They create black-market opportunities to make a lot of money very fast. And the prospect of making big money fast is tempting to young people who are poor. And after all, let’s face it: Most drug-law violators don’t get caught.

Is it a stupid decision to go down that road? Of course it is. But young people make lots of stupid decisions. What matters here is that the federal government has intentionally created and maintained in existence a program that federal officials know tempts young people, especially poor ones, into trying to make a big score, after which federal officials do their best to destroy these young people for succumbing to the temptation that federal officials have placed before them.

What about the federal judges and federal prosecutors who were enforcing the drug war back in the 60s and 70s? They’re long retired on their fat federal pensions or now deceased. Their lives — or at least the drug-war portion of their lives — were a total waste. They accomplished nothing positive and instead ruined the lives of many good people.

Today the pattern repeats itself. Different federal judges, different prosecutors, and different DEA agents. But the drug-war bromides remain the same. So do the busts, prosecutions, and sentences, as well as the newspapers articles that ballyhoo all this destructive drug-war nonsense. And, of course, the massive ruination of lives goes on.

Reprinted with permission from the Future of Freedom Foundation.


  • Jacob G. Hornberger

    Jacob George Hornberger is an American attorney, author, and politician who was a Libertarian candidate for president in 2000 and 2020. He is the founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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