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.

January 2009By Comments

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 failures. And something needs to be done about it. And we’ve done a decent job at addressing enforcement issues. What we’ve not addressed at all in this country are demand-side issues.

SUSIE BYRD, COUNCIL MEMBER DISTRICT 2: A lot of folks on the committee and that are involved are talking about putting together a conference or a forum to discuss the past forty years of drug enforcement.

Is there any support you’re not receiving that would make it easier for the U.S. to fight this war?

EL PASO POLICE CHIEF GREG ALLEN: First of all, drugs aren’t going to go away. You know, people say the war on drugs isn’t working. It’s never been worse. And that’s because people like to feel good. That’s why people like to use it. People need to realize that people like to feel good and drugs make them feel good. How is that going to change? It’s not. It’s not going to go away if the idea of legalizing it is on the table. People—if they want to legislate that in the law, thinking that will work, God bless them, because I’m not putting my name on anything that might want to push that.

EL PASO MAYOR JOHN COOK: In my humble opinion, the drug question and the drug war is a marketing concept of supply versus demand. Mexico is in the supply and channels of distribution part of the equation. In the U.S. it is distribution- and sales-driven by consumer demand. One of the reasons the current strategy has failed is because our focus has been one of disruption of the channels of distribution and incarceration with little to no emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation. The importation of weapons from the U.S. into Mexico has fueled the violence and left the Mexican law enforcement agencies out-numbered, out-financed and out-gunned.

What does law enforcement think of the resolution?

CHIEF GREG ALLEN: Legalization is not going to stop crime. Cartels are in the business of making money. The violence that’s taking place right now are wars because they want a monopoly. Each cartel wants a monopoly on the drug trade. That’s why they’re busy killing one another. By the mere fact that you legalize it over here isn’t going to change that. They just find a different angle. They get money off of it. There’s still going to be the supply and demand. The demand from the United States will still cause them to grow, and they will still try to monopolize it.

BARRY MCCAFFREY, FORMER U.S. DRUG CZAR: Legalization of drugs is a unwise policy option. Drugs are addictive. They change brain function. They cause physical, legal, and social disasters in families and businesses. They destroy ambition, affection, and energy. They ruin families.

Did any outcry from the community prompt the resolution?

STEVE ORTEGA, COUNCIL MEMBER FROM DISTRICT 7: I’ve been here on the council along with six other members since 2005. We’ve not shied away from speaking on issues that are relevant to our community—that includes speaking out against the minutemen when they came to El Paso, and then also taking a stand against the border wall. And I think that it would be negligent on my part if there was nothing stated from the council dais about the violence taking place in Juárez just this past year. In 2008 we had almost 1,700 murders, and when you compare that with El Paso—one of the safest cities in the country, consistently ranked—I want to say we had 20 murders. I think it was appropriate for us to make a statement.

SUSIE BYRD, COUNCIL MEMBER DISTRICT 2: We have an advisory committee appointed by the mayor and council called the Border Relation Committee and they brought it forward for our consideration. The situation in Juárez feels so big sometimes you don’t know what your role in solving it is. But I think that there has been a general uneasiness in El Paso. I know our law enforcement agency is really engaged in coordinating with the DEA and the Juárez enforcement agencies, but I think what the commission was trying to say is “Look, we can’t afford to be silent anymore on this issue. We need to take a stand, and first and foremost, let our neighbors in Mexico know they’re not alone in all of this.

Why do you think the violence from Juárez hasn’t spilled over into El Paso?

CHIEF GREG ALLEN: Because they’re not dumb. The violence is not going to spill over necessarily in the way it takes place in Mexico because law enforcement here is more respected than it is in Mexico.

MAYOR JOHN COOK: I am cautiously optimistic that the violence in Juárez will not spill over to this side of the border. As a city, we are prepared to respond aggressively if it does.

TONY PAYAN, MEMBER OF THE COMMITTEE FOR BORDER RELATIONS: Well, you know, 2008 was a really tough year in Juárez, 1,663 reported deaths. Probably several hundred people disappeared. I’m guessing two hundred to three hundred people disappeared that have never been found again, and I know a couple of dozen people disappeared and nobody knows what happened to them. They may be buried somewhere and their skeletons may be found later or something, so you’re talking about an extraordinary amount of individuals executed. I mean, if you have in Juárez 1.4 million people, and you divide it by 163, you’re talking about 1 person executed for about every 850 people. That is not counting the natural deaths that occur in the city by diabetes and heart attacks and all the other diseases. If you were to add that to the morbidity rate in Juárez, it is probably one of the most deadly cities in the world. And yet, although there are some signs that some of it has spilled into El Paso—a little bit maybe, a few kidnappings and then taken to Juárez the spillage has been very, very minimal. And so I think that the local enforcement community is very alert. They’re watching for all the signs.

STEVE ORTEGA, COUNCIL MEMBER FROM DISTRICT 7: Couple of reasons. Number one, when people say that people have not been affected by the violence of Juárez, there is not a more misinformed statement. We have had a handful of victims of the drug violence from Mexico seeking care at our publicly funded hospital. Number two, discretionary travel from El Paso to Juárez has come to a near stand-still. You have people, you have families that live on both sides of the border that like to visit each other. They like to have birthday parties. That has come to a stop. We haven’t specifically experienced the violence here, but there have been effects—on top of the effect on the regional economy.

Is there a scenario you can see in which it would spill over?

CHIEF GREG ALLEN: Only if someone who they intend to take back into Mexico who is doing dirty deeds and would like to put up a fight. We become aware of it over here that way, but for the most part, I don’t think it’s going to take place. We have a partnership with federal and county law enforcement, and we all work in unison. I’m not thinking about it that much. I’m actually not thinking about it. All I’m trying to do is make sure that our local problems are dealt with here. I don’t have sleepless nights worrying about Mexico. I can’t do anything. It’s not my concern. My direct concern is El Paso, not Mexico. That’s another country. People forget that, actually. That is another country. Just because we have a border with it doesn’t change that aspect of it. That’s another country. And that country has to come up with the solution that they need to deal with that, not us all of a sudden trying to solve their problems. I’ve got my own problems over here.

MAYOR JOHN COOK: It is a more likely scenario that the extortion of middle class Mexican professionals who take refuge in El Paso will become victims of the violence than those involved in the illegal drug trade.

BARRY MCCAFFREY, FORMER U.S. DRUG CZAR: Mexico needs our support with both political and financial resources. This brave Mexican president is trying to create a law-based nation. If Mexico falls into the hands of the drug cartels, El Paso will be on the front line of a humanitarian disaster. The El Paso mayor is a public servant of courage. He and the people should stand their ground

Have you been surprised that the violence hasn’t spilled over?

MAYOR JOHN COOK: It is not surprising that the violence has stayed on the Mexican side of the border. Almost every major law enforcement agency has a presence in El Paso, and we have well-organized neighborhood associations and crime watches that have proven to be effective law enforcement tools.

STEVE ORTEGA, COUNCIL MEMBER FROM DISTRICT 7: I think the cartels are also concerned about eliciting a United States response to what’s going on.

Do you ever feel that you are in danger yourself?

MAYOR JOHN COOK: I am not concerned for my own safety, even during my travels into Juárez.

STEVE ORTEGA, COUNCIL MEMBER FROM DISTRICT 7: Absolutely not. El Paso is one of the safest cities in the country. And we’ve been consistently ranked third or second safest city between five hundred and one million people for the past, I want to say, six, seven, or eight years. This community is extremely safe, the safest big city in Texas.

SUSIE BYRD, COUNCIL MEMBER DISTRICT 2: Every now and then you’ll get funny text messages that say look out for such and such on this bar on such and such street. So it’s more fear that has come over than actually the violence.

Do you feel like the rest of the U.S. understands what it is like to live so close to the violence in Juárez?

STEVE ORTEGA, COUNCIL MEMBER FROM DISTRICT 7: I don’t think the rest of the United States understands what we are going through, but that’s why I think it’s important that local leadership frame the issue.

Mayor John Cook: Most folks around the country don’t have any idea how close our two cities are—not only geographically but also culturally and economically. Even if they did, it is more likely that they would just thank God that they are not in the same situation than to change their opinions as to how things should be handled.

SUSIE BYRD, COUNCIL MEMBER DISTRICT 2: No. They just don’t get us. That’s part of what we need to do. We need to talk about the reality of living on the border—what it’s like and what it’s not like. I do think that sometimes, for political reasons, we’re painted as a lawless outpost overrun by illegal immigrants when that’s not the case. Before this past year, the violence seemed contained and targeted toward people in the drug trade, otherwise you were okay except for a random act every now and then. That has changed so much so recently that I think even for El Pasoans it’s hard to connect that to what’s going on in the United States. In fact, I know from a lot of my community meetings that people see what is happening in Mexico as having very little to do with our country, which is not true. It’s very connected. We also wanted to come to a resolution, and we need to recognize that what is happening in our country is not isolated. It really is up to us as two countries together to solve the problem.

How have your constituents responded to this resolution?

MAYOR JOHN COOK: The responses from my constituents have been mixed, with about two-thirds of those contacting us favoring my position on the veto. My action to veto the resolution has been called stupid by some and courageous by others.

STEVE ORTEGA, COUNCIL MEMBER FROM DISTRICT 7: I have received a handful of e-mails and a handful of calls of people supporting the resolution, and the people that have called against the action I was taking yesterday have really criticized the legalization of drugs. But I have to remind them that that’s not what happened yesterday. We didn’t support the legalization of drugs. We supported having a dialogue that examines our country’s drug policy.

SUSIE BYRD, COUNCIL MEMBER DISTRICT 2: I don’t know—it has been a little sensationalized. During our discussion it was said often that we’re not trying to promote drug use. But if our goal as a country is to reduce the consumption of drugs, we’re not doing it. So what are our other options up to and including the prohibition on drugs? It’s gotten so bad that we can’t help but ask ourselves that question. We have a huge incarceration rate in this country. It kind of goes on and on. What are our options?

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