Legalize It?

The El Paso City Council may override the mayor’s veto to create a debate on the current U.S. drug policies. In these interviews, the mayor, council members, and others explain their views.
Legalize It? 
Photo Illustration by Mark Hooper

On January 6, the El Paso City Council passed a unanimous resolution to reexamine U.S. drug policies, stirring some controversy in its request for a debate about the legalization of drugs. The measure was vetoed by Mayor John Cook. Last week I e-mailed council members, the mayor, the chief of police, an ex-drug czar, and one of the resolution’s writers. What follows are responses from those who have answered. We will amend this story with additional replies from the remaining council members as they filter in.

UPDATE: Since last week, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes sent the council a letter telling them that federal funding for El Paso would be cut if they overturned the mayor’s veto. Last Tuesday, January 13, when the council counted their votes, the group was split 4–4, two votes shy of what was necessary to overturn the veto. Members Emma Acosta, Melina Castro, Rachel Quintana, and Eddie Holguin, the members who changed their votes, sited Reyes’ comments as a major factor in their decision. 

(To the members of the council and Tony Payan, who helped write the resolution) Could you tell me a little bit about the resolution and your reasons for voting for it?

STEVE ORTEGA, COUNCIL MEMBER FROM DISTRICT 7: The resolution was brought forth by the committee for border relations, a group of local citizens appointed by the mayor and council to provide guidance and advice concerning international issues. They brought forth the resolution in response to the violence that we have seen in our sister city to the south. On Tuesday, January 6, we discussed creation of a policy-wide paper concerning narcotics that could be used to help frame the national and international because here in El Paso, we’ve learned that when we do not take an active role in framing debates that are important to our community then, unfortunately, some of those issues get framed by ideologues in Washington, D.C., whose responses are often reactionary and are not informed. I think it’s important that those who are actually living with the issue help to frame the solutions. I think we took that first step on Tuesday.

TONY PAYAN, MEMBER OF THE COMMITTEE FOR BORDER RELATIONS: It’s called the Solidarity and Peace Resolution, and it had four purposes: 1) to express solidarity with the people of Juárez in this time of crisis; 2) to express condolences to the families affected by violence; 3) to condemn the violence and those who perpetrate it; and 4) to address the Mexican and U.S. federal governments in a series of actions that might help curb the violence in our sister city of Ciudad Juárez. Those were the original purposes. What ended up happening is one of the city council members, Beto O’Rourke, thought that the resolution was a little soft and that it needed a little bit more, namely to add a statement that we ought to really have a national debate on drug policy. If you look at the resolution as it stands approved, it doesn’t call for legalization of drugs; it calls for a national debate on drug policy.

SUSIE BYRD, COUNCIL MEMBER DISTRICT 2: It was a very broad resolution. The big piece was to say we’re concerned about what’s happening in Juárez. Our relatives and our friends live there and are facing an incredible amount of uncertainty and a lot of fear. Their economy has really been hurt by it. Our economy has been hurt. And we wanted to let them know that we are concerned about it. As a city, we feel like we need to work with them to improve the security situation over there. And then there was one part of it that was discussed, one portion of the larger resolution is to really reexamine our drug policies in the United States and make recommendations about how we can improve them so they’re actually effective. But I think that from what we see on the border and the metrics out there to see if they’re effective, they’re not really an effective policy. Our goal as a country is, and it should be, to reduce drug consumption. We put a lot of money into these efforts and a lot of enforcement, and it doesn’t seem like we’re actually achieving that goal. Not only are we not actually achieving that goal but we’re also spending an awful lot of money with very little result and we’ve created this incredible violence in Mexico as a result.

[Mayor Cook] Could you tell me a little bit about your reasons for vetoing the resolution?

EL PASO MAYOR JOHN COOK: I had several reasons for vetoing council’s unanimous action. First of all, as I had predicted, the amendment to the resolution has detracted from and reduced the effectiveness of the Border Relations Committee’s resolution which was to focus attention on the uncontrolled violence in our sister city of Juárez. As is obvious from the media coverage, all the emphasis is now on the legalization of narcotics and the other eleven recommended actions have been ignored. Secondly, with the narcotics legalization language in the resolution, it would curtail my ability to get support from our Federal delegation for the other worthwhile suggestions contained in the resolution. Third, I have a long history and a reputation in the community as an advocate for promoting a drug-free lifestyle, and the amended language is contrary to my personal opinions regarding narcotics.

If the council overrides the mayor’s veto on Tuesday, what happens next?

STEVE ORTEGA, COUNCIL MEMBER FROM DISTRICT 7: I would like to see an informed white paper with specific policy proposals come forward in the next couple of months. And then have local leadership again take this to the national and international levels. I think that’s what needs to happen, and two thousand people, close to two thousand people dying in Juárez alone in 2008 that’s unconscionable. And to me there’s near consensus that the drug wars in this country and Mexico are dismal strategic, economic, and social

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