The world’s most notorious drug dealer vanished from a maximum security prison on Saturday, setting off a celebration worthy of the folk hero he’s become in parts of his native Mexico. But the escape of Joaquin Guzman could be a headache for American drug reformers—especially fans of marijuana legalization.
It’s hard to imagine anything slowing the roll of pot. The first aboveboard just-for-fun cannabis markets are up and running in Colorado and Washington. Voters in Oregon and Alaska are working on the same. A consistent majority of Americans say they support plans to legalize the drug elsewhere in 2016, according to polls by NBC News and others.
But as head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Guzman -- also known as "El Chapo" -- could upset this steady progress. He’s the nation’s largest heroin supplier. He’s expanded sales in recent years, perhaps to make up for losses in the marijuana market, and the number of heroin overdoses has nearly quadrupled in the last decade, studies show. What's troubling for the marijuana movement is what the history of past heroin epidemics suggests will happen in this one.
In the past, politicians have struggled to distinguish between heroin and marijuana policy, and parents have seen pot as a "gateway" to heroin just because it often comes first in the sequence. Both groups, meanwhile, have historically avoided talking much about drugs until right about the moment when heroin starts making junkies out of a whiter, more suburban population.
That's exactly what's happening now: the vast majority of new heroin users are white. You might assume that our drug politics are more sophisticated today, and that all drug deaths are treated equally, but after living and researching the turbulent history of marijuana reform in this country, I wouldn’t assume anything of the sort.
After all, we’ve seen this episode of American drug politics before.
In the late 1960s, marijuana reformers launched a massive push for acceptance of the drug. This was no fringe campaign. The head of the Food & Drug Administration supported softer pot laws. Newsweek and Time predicted success. Even Harry Anslinger — yes, THAT Harry Anslinger—favored a change.
As head of the Federal Narcotics Bureau in the 1930s, Anslinger did more than anyone to push marijuana into the greenhouse of hades. He coined the deathless phrase “assassin of youth,” and spread the idea that marijuana drove its users to gymnastic orgies of sex and violence. But on second thought, he told the editors of LIFE, in 1967, “when it’s a simple case of a kid using the stuff … it should be turned over to health and school authorities.”
Marijuana wasn’t even federally illegal when Richard Nixon took office in January of 1969. The “marijuana menace” of the 1930s resulted not in prohibition but a complicated middle position: a marijuana tax, which by the Age of Aquarius was flouted all. More than 12 million Americans puffed the one-time devil weed, and their heroic defenders launched an all-out attack on state pot lows nationwide.
But instead of marijuana legalization, or even decriminalization, we got the war on drugs. There are a lot of reasons why, but as you read about 'El Chapo' here’s the reason to keep in mind: heroin. As marijuana acceptance spread, heroin pushed out of the ghetto and into white suburbia. Use doubled, overdoses soared.
In San Francisco health workers declared 1970 “the year of the middle class junkie.” In Grosse Pointe, Michigan, kids bought heroin on their parents credit cards. Teen overdoes tripled in the New York City. More than 80% of the new mainliners nationwide were white, just as they are today.
And so, the politics of pot suddenly changed. Congress banned the stuff outright in 1970 when it passed the Controlled Substances Act. The plant was tabbed as “schedule I”: a narcotic with no medical value, just like heroin. Then in June of 1971, President Nixon unwrapped the “war on drugs,” by which point all drugs were the cause of stupendous panic, regardless of their individual dangers.
Nixon defended his ban on marijuana, saying that legalization “would only encourage more of our young people down the long, dismal road to ruination and self-destruction.” More than 40 years later, as heroin once again is sweeping the suburbs, it’s all too easy to imagine a Republican candidate saying those same words today.
So, if you’re a fan of pot, you might consider doing something you’ve never done before. If you happen to see the heroin kingpin Joaquin Guzman, you might consider calling the cops.
Sure, you’ll be a narc. With a little luck, however, pot will be soon be legal—and you’ll no longer be a criminal.