Pot Matters: Trump on Drugs

Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s position on how to stop the drug epidemic is fairly simple—just say wall. 

Trump wants to build a wall along the southern border of the United States, a “great wall that will keep illegal immigrants out.” But this Great Wall will, according to Trump, solve other problems. It will also keep drugs out of New Hampshire. In fact, Trump declares that when he builds his wall “no drugs are coming in.”

Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? Wait, someone has, a group of fellows working for Richard Nixon, and they called it Operation Intercept. Douglas Valentine tells the story of this epic failure in his history of the DEA, The Strength of the Pack.

Nixon promised to solve the drug problem in a 1968 presidential campaign speech.  He gave the speech to Martin Pollner, an advisor on crime, and told him to make it happen. Pollner was eventually assigned to work for Eugene Rossides, a Treasury Department official, supervising law enforcement with close ties to Myles Ambrose, the director of the Customs Service, which was then fighting a bureaucratic turf war with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (the predecessor of the modern DEA). 

Pollner and Rossides wrote a paper, Ambrose took it to the White House and Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman assigned the problem to his hippie-hating assistant Egil “Bud” Krogh, who figured out that the relationship between drugs and crime made this a great political issue to exploit. So, Krogh became the chief White House advisor on drug policy, and in the summer of 1969, he put together Task Force One to plan and implement a huge interdiction effort along the Mexican border from Brownsville, Texas to San Diego, California. 

They would seal the border and search every vehicle attempting to cross it.

As Valentine explained, “They called it Operation Intercept. According to Myles Ambrose, the unstated purpose was political; 'to fulfill Nixon’s pledge to improve the interdiction of drugs from Mexico' . . . Intercept would . . . grab headlines over a period of weeks.”

While failing to stop the flow of drugs, Operation Intercept “created the larges traffic jam in history” and disrupted legitimate trade across the border that was valuable to both countries. 

The Mexican government was furious, suspicious and resentful. The State Department viewed it “as a huge failure in foreign relations.” But according to Valentine, Operation Intercept “was a perfect expression of the nativist aspect of American politics. It appealed to the mean streak in Nixon’s conservative base and was hailed by strutting White House officials as a smashing success.”

The fallout from Intercept was profound. 

Customs received a massive funding boost from Congress, and a (then) little-known former FBI agent named G. Gordon Liddy began his ascent in the Nixon White House. Liddy had received attention from his raid on Timothy Leary’s LSD commune in Millbrook, New York. 

At this time he was working for Rossides and put together the details of the plan for Operation Intercept. Rossides eventually came to the conclusion that Liddy “was nuts,” and accordingly, Liddy was moved from the treasury to the White House where he worked for Krogh, eventually getting involved in Nixonian projects that lead up to and include the Watergate burglary. 

But that’s another story.

Trump’s remedy for the drug epidemic is another disturbing example of history repeating itself. 

Actually, though, it is really an example of politics repeating itself. While Trump acknowledges the need for treatment and rehabilitation programs to treat individuals addicted to heroin, his view of the supply side of the issue is pure politics. 

Valentine’s observation about Operation Intercept could just as easily be applied to Trump’s Great Wall—“a perfect expression of the nativist aspect of American politics” that appeals to the conservative base.

While Mexican drug trafficking organizations have seized a larger share of the heroin market in the United States, heroin enters the United States from many sources, at many ports of entry and in many ways. 

According to the Justice Department, Mexican drug trafficking organizations “typically use commercial trucks and private and rental vehicles to smuggle cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin through the 25 land POEs (Port of Entries), as well as through vast areas of desert and mountainous terrain between POEs.” 

According to the DEA, the average heroin seizure in 2014 was 1.74 kilograms. So while a Great Wall might address some of the problem—such as smuggling across desert and mountainous areas—it won’t hermetically seal the United States so that “no drugs are coming in.” 

Indeed, any review of the means and methods of heroin smuggling reveals a multitude of strategies for getting it into the United States. Given that a kilogram of heroin is about the size of a couple of construction bricks and worth tens of thousands of dollars, it’s going to take more than a wall to keep the smugglers at bay.

Of course, Trump’s stand on the drug epidemic is simply political rhetoric, designed to appeal to a political constituency and to win him votes and the Republican party’s nomination for president. But should he be elected, a return to the Nixonian approach to drug policy means a return to the War on Drugs. 

Despite Trump’s disarming comments on marijuana’s legalization in various states, this will mean trouble for the cause of drug policy reform.

(Photo Courtesy of KTLA.com)

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