The veteran sitting across the table from me looked weary after delivering yet another speech against a war that has neither a point nor, apparently, an end. It was started years ago by a Republican president, long since discredited, the veteran noted. Yet the Democrats who until a few weeks ago controlled both the White House and Congress didn't raise a finger to stop it. "I don't understand how much more money has to be wasted or how many more lives have to be ruined before we admit it's been a huge mistake," Kyle Vogt told me. "We can end this thing with the stroke of a pen."
He wasn't referring to Iraq or Afghanistan, but America's truly endless war, the war on drugs. Declared 40 years ago by President Nixon, it chews up $41 billion in government spending each year while sending 2 million Americans to jail. Yet Nixon's goal of a drug-free America ("the final issue is not whether we will conquer drug abuse, but how soon") seems no closer to anyone but the drug warriors themselves.
"All these years later, the people running the drug war keep promising us the same thing they have from the beginning, that they can decrease drug use," Vogt said. "They just need a little more time and a little more money. Why do we listen? We wouldn't tolerate that from a physician who was treating us and not making us any better.
"And if everything your physician told you to do made your illness worse, you'd quit doing it and find another doctor."
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Vogt, who served four years as a military policeman on a Maryland Army base, speaks as a veteran of the front lines of the drug war. He's one of an increasing number of former drug warriors turned doves. Their organization, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, includes 4,000 people — from beat cops through Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico — who once played roles in enforcing drug laws.
I caught up with Vogt in a Fort Lauderdale coffee shop recently after he spoke to Broward County's Libertarian Party. He told me that if LEAP membership weren't career suicide, its roster would be full of current policemen, prosecutors and judges as well.
"I talk to law enforcement people all the time," he said. "I'd guess eight out of every 10 are totally against this prohibition policy we follow on drugs. And every single one of them is baffled that we put people in jail for marijuana. Marijuana doesn't kill anyone, while we see that in the case of alcohol all the time."
Baby boomers, many of whom used marijuana themselves when they were younger, like to kid themselves that the war on drugs that they've wholeheartedly supported as adults is aimed not at marijuana but harder drugs, and not at users but traffickers.
But the cold fact is that U.S. drug-enforcement policy overwhelmingly targets not drug lords but the people to whom they sell. FBI statistics for 2007 show that more than 80 percent of U.S. drug arrests that year were for possession rather than sale, and that there were nearly twice as many arrests for marijuana as for heroin and cocaine combined.
When he was a military policeman, Vogt thought arresting people for using marijuana was weird: "If we were called to a domestic dispute or a hostage situation, we worried about alcohol, not marijuana, because it's alcohol that makes people crazy." But it wasn't until after he left the military and opened a construction business that he turned into an active opponent of marijuana laws.
"My son was arrested after a cop saw him smoking a joint in a parked car," Vogt said. "He had to pay a fine of a couple of hundred dollars, which is not such a big deal, at least not for us. But college scholarships? Forget it. My son can't even get a simple job. He goes online to fill out an application to work at a hamburger chain, and he gets to that little box that says, 'Have you ever been arrested?' And when he clicks 'yes,' the next thing he sees on the screen is, SESSION ENDED."
The worst, Vogt fears, is yet to come. He looks south across the border to Mexico — now the most murderous country in the world as a result of warfare between drug cartels competing for the U.S. market — and sees a grim vision of America's future.
"Prohibition creates crime and violence in our society that need not exist, except for the policy of prohibition itself," he said, shaking his head. "We tried this with alcohol, and we had gangsters, just like Mexico does. And when we replaced Prohibition with a system of regulation and control, we got rid of the gangsters. You don't see Coors and Budweiser doing drive-by shootings or planting car bombs to increase their market share."