Newton: Legalization is best approach for marijuana

Richard Newton, Guest columnist | June 4, 2016

I am a retired U.S. Customs agent and spent 22 years trying to keep illegal drugs out of the country. After realizing the futility of our efforts, I joined Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and began advocating for marijuana legalization.

Having worked the gamut of criminal justice and law enforcement professions, LEAP members understand that our existing marijuana policy has failed to reduce crime, street violence, or its use among youth and adults. We can’t even keep marijuana out of prisons.

Customs and Border Protection has been celebrating numerous large seizures of marijuana along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In September of last year, nearly one ton of marijuana was found in a burning pickup truck on the side of the road in Webb County. Around the same time, 500 pounds were discovered hidden in hollowed-out wooden posts.

More than a ton of marijuana was discovered tightly packaged and hidden in buckets of mango pulp. Two tons of marijuana were seized at the Texas border in January, a little over one ton of which was wrapped in orange packaging meant to disguise the load as a shipment of carrots.

In April of this year, about one ton was found in boxes in an 18-wheeler truck at aFalfurrias checkpoint. If I’m starting to sound repetitive, I’ll remind you that we’ve been doing this for decades.

CBP has estimated that they seize 5 to 10 percent of illegal drugs smuggled into the United States. If we go with 10 percent to keep the math easy, then for every one-ton of marijuana seized at the border, 18,000 pounds of marijuana go through undetected.

Considering the billions we spend every year on enforcement, this is a pitiful result. The 2016 CBP budget amounts to $13.56 billion, so it’s unfortunate that we’re considering our efforts a success.

Corruption of border officials is also worrisome. Some cases of corruption are clear-cut and involve a perpetrator who understood the consequences of his or her actions and moved forward out of profit motive.

Many cases are murkier. Border Patrol agents who accepted a bribe may have been threatened or their families may have been in danger.

The Center for Investigative Reporting catalogued 154 corruption cases at our southern border between 2005 and 2014. The top four most common crimes committed by border officials in these cases were drug trafficking, bribery, human smuggling, and making false statements.

In July 2015, the Homeland Security Advisory Council released their Interim Report of the CPB Integrity Advisory Panel, which says, “…corruption is the Achilles heel of border agencies,” and that the “true levels of corruption … are not known.” CBP has been assigned an impossible task.

Prohibition didn’t work for alcohol in the 1920s. It resulted in widespread corruption of law enforcement and the political establishment, and the rise of organized crime. Marijuana prohibition has no better track record.

Gangs have flourished, good cops have been corrupted, border patrol agents are bribed, and innocent people get caught in the crosshairs of gang violence. Perhaps we were much smarter in the 1920s – it only took our ancestors 13 years to repeal their prohibition law.

If we really want to weaken the cartels or promote an effective policy concerning marijuana use, then we should be following the example Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia have already set by legalizing marijuana.

Marijuana use or abuse should never have been considered a law enforcement issue. Instead, it should be treated as a private issue – one that can be addressed by family members, counselors, and faith and community leaders.

Richard Newton, who lives in El Paso, spent 32 years in federal service. He’s a retired major for the U.S. Marines and a retired drug interdiction pilot for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.