An issue that has been hotly debated among politicians and citizens for decades, the war on drugs is as controversial a topic as they come, and Texas is at the forefront of it. The state of Texas has been at the center of the nation’s political discourse on drugs since the implementation of the criminalization of recreational drug use decades ago. Texas shares the longest border with Mexico of any of the states, and this border is a passageway for most of the sources of the nation’s narcotics. Texas government, culture, and society at the state and local levels are impacted socially, economically, and legislatively by the perpetuation of the war on drugs and the ongoing drug trade. The Texas government’s response to the war on drugs and the illicit drug trade has had a continuous effect on the United States and Texas itself through the criminalization of drugs, through border policy, and through incalculable collateral damage.
Texas has both a traditionalistic and an individualistic political culture. These cultures derive from the state’s heritage of opposition to “big government,” support for private businesses, struggle for independence, and influence from the Old South. Because Texas has such a unique mix of political cultures and houses a population of tens of millions, it sets precedents when it comes to governmental policy on the economy, society, and interpretation of society’s view of morality. As the most populous state with a right-leaning state government and legislature, it especially sets precedents when it comes to socially conservative policy regarding society and morality. For example, Texas has outlawed gambling, prostitution, and other things the legislature, acting democratically as representatives on behalf of the citizenry, believed are moral vices and should not be present in the state. This legislature, at the forefront of the drug debate, also outlawed many drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, etc., from recreational use and mandated certain punishments for possession and/or dealing of such substances.
Another state at the forefront of the drug debate, California, has implemented more lenient policies when it comes to drug use. This state’s legislature decriminalized marijuana possession, but still prohibited the sale of that and other drugs, as well as the possession of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, etc. Other states, such as Colorado, have implemented even more lax laws regarding recreational marijuana. Colorado’s legislature legalized both the possession and sale of recreational marijuana, which generated, in 2015 for example, nearly $1 billion in sales and 18,000 full-time jobs, according to The Cannabist. This led to extreme growth for Colorado’s economy, not to mention millions of tax dollars. According to Texas: The Lone Star State, the cross-border drug trade from South and Central America into Texas and the United States produces a profit of approximately $25 billion per year, and Colorado tapped into that profit by encouraging the sale of recreational marijuana by small businesses. In contrast, by criminalizing drug use, Texas has overfilled its prisons with nonviolent people oftentimes in trouble merely for drug possession. Texas has one of the highest incarceration rates of the country. The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas says, “Between 1980 and 2004, the population of Texas’ 94 prisons and 20 state jails increased by 556 percent, and corrections spending increased by 1,600 percent.” With 20,313 Texans in prison and 3,893 people in a “state jail for a drug offense,” according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, 51 percent and 87 percent, respectively, were put in jail just for drug possession, not for something such as distribution or another drug-related offense.
These facts create a stark contrast between Colorado drug (marijuana) policy and Texas drug policy. One state used the private sector and taxes to profit off of an ever-present black market, and the other is facing problems with overcrowded jails. A smaller black market for marijuana still exists in Colorado, due to the high taxes implemented on its sale. Furthermore, in an effort to curb the issue of overcrowding, the Texas legislature marked a shift in its own trend regarding drug policy. Texan policymakers, according to the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice, decided to expand treatment programs in order to avert growth in the prison population and avoid the cost of $523 million for new prisons needed to accommodate that growth. Perhaps this shift to rehabilitation rather than punishment for drug abusers will mark a new era in Texan drug policy.
Prohibition, a policy enacted in the 1920s, outlawed the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. At the time, many people viewed alcohol as a moral vice. Though Prohibition only lasted for a little more than a decade, its effects were many and vast. Prohibition created a black market for alcohol rife with violence, which led to the rise of urban, organized crime. A direct parallel can be drawn between Prohibition policy and modern drug policy and the waging of the war on drugs. Other than the recent trends in the legalization of marijuana, United States common policy regarding recreational drugs, criminalization, has created a proliferous black market spewing with violence. After all, the drug cartels entrenched in this black market are highly profit-minded. There is a market and a high demand for these drugs, whether it is marijuana or cocaine or heroin or methamphetamine. The drug cartels provide the supply and are willing to use whatever means necessary, often including brutality, to maintain their economies and transport the supply to consumers. The high profit they receive—which generates, according to Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It, approximately $400 billion per year as of 1995—perpetuates the market and the violence that accompanies it. Much of the drug trade in the United States is illicit cross-border activity, which connects Texas and the U.S. through this trade to Central and South America. The economics of smuggling are profitable and have led to issues regarding U.S./Texas border policy and immigration concerns. The Texas border with Mexico is particularly important to the drug trade, as drugs are imported to cartel strongholds in Houston, El Paso, and Laredo, and other major Texas cities, and then are distributed throughout Texas and the United States.
Texan policymakers have tried to increase border security and decrease undocumented immigration over the years, in order to try to stop this distribution. For example, according to the Public Broadcasting Service, the Texas legislature passed a bill approved by Governor Abbott in 2015 to spend $800 million on border security over the following two years. This money was meant for a high-altitude plane, a new border crime data center, a training facility for border law enforcement, and helicopter flights. Granted, undocumented immigration often coincides with the drug trade, claims Texas: The Lone Star State, but this has created an unfair bias against Hispanics and Hispanic Americans often found in American political discourse and social thought. Instead of being viewed as individuals seeking a better life, like other immigrants, they are often stereotyped as people who have caused addiction in America’s youth, who have caused countless American deaths, and who are undoubtedly colluding with the drug cartels. Such views are not only unfair, but entirely unproductive as part of the discourse on solutions to the illicit drug trade and a seemingly unsuccessful war on drugs.
The war on drugs’ effects in Texas are not limited to just these blatant factors. There has been collateral damage that is just as significant in determining the costs of the war on drugs and the illicit drug trade. This collateral damage cannot always be calculated and measured. However, there are a few solid examples. The first is the annual monetary cost of the war on drugs. According to America’s Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs, “We are spending more than $12 billion a year on the drug problem at the federal level and far more at the state, city, corporate, and private levels.” One example of the high cost of the war on drugs at the state level is illustrated by the aforementioned $800 million spent on border security in 2015. Jeffrey Miron, director of undergraduate studies at Harvard University, estimated in 2010 that the annual cost of enforcing marijuana laws is $2 billion in Texas, according to the Consumer News and Business Channel (CNBC). The Drug Policy Alliance claims that, overall, the war on drugs has cost taxpayers more than $1 trillion. Another cost of the illicit drug trade is the violence that accompanies the profitable black market. For example, since 2006, more than 50,000 Mexicans have been killed in connection with the drug trade, according to Cartels at War: Mexico’s Drug-Fueled Violence and the Threat to U.S. National Security. This source also says, “By 2008, there were more beheadings occurring in Mexico than in Iraq or Afghanistan combined. And outside of these two war-torn countries, Mexico has become the place where more Americans have been killed than any other nation, most victims of cartel violence.”
Furthermore, dangerous human trafficking also accompanies the drug trade. Also, the drug trade, perpetuated by drug cartels, has caused growth in organized crime and the creation of gangs inside the United States and Texas. These gangs often have bloody feuds with rival gangs over territory for drug distribution, and the feuds often end in the deaths of innocent bystanders. Furthermore, gangs become entrenched in impoverished communities and overpower the benefits of public education. Individuals in these poor communities see a future within the gang—with a group of peers—rather than a future pursuing a college degree or a better life for themselves. More than just tragic, this cycle is dangerous; it helps perpetuate the illicit and highly dangerous drug trade. Finally, the opportunity cost of the war on drugs is high. The money, resources, manpower, and other factors that go into its perpetuation could be utilized toward another goal. Though many support the intention behind the war on drugs, many view it as a mismanagement of resources.
The Texas and U.S. governments’ attempts to govern drug use have caused economic and human losses of massive proportion. Though many view recreational drug use as a moral vice, the consequences of its prohibition and the war on drugs that has been waged since the 1970s have been vast. Despite the intentions of policymakers, this prohibition has had catastrophic results. An effort that was originally meant to safeguard human life turned into abounding financial and human loss. This war must either be waged differently or not at all.