What we have begun to contemplate across the vast expense of the drug war is how that line might be redrawn, and the terms under which the cystic pockets of violence that have developed out beyond our boundaries might be welcomed back into society. America’s prior experience with alcohol prohibition can tell us something about the economics of what might happen in Colorado and Washington. But alcohol was only briefly illegal, and so when prohibition was revoked, the culture and economy of legal consumption could return, almost as if they had always been there. There is no similar memory of the neighborhood marijuana café, no history of the harmless, corporatist transit of cocaine through Central America. In its long tenure behind the line—in the United States and beyond—the drug traffic has acquired its own culture, hierarchy, and distinct habits. It has, as Adam Blackwell would say, a structure.
Not that this structure is unfamiliar. It no longer seems deluded or ironic when a drug kingpin compares himself to a CEO, or a marijuana grower suggest hers is the most American industry of all. It was once precisely their own radical individualism that isolated the outlaws. But America’s communitarian instinct has dissipated a bit since the sixties, and the politics that have replaced it are a politics of outsiders, of civil-liberties individualism on the left and capitalist individualism on the right. We have, in other words, already surrendered something: the insistence, even against all reason and practicality, that in this instance at least a free marketplace is too ruthless to be tolerated. In this sense, our drugs politics are catching up to the rest of our politics.
Just before Election Day, I was on the phone with Mikal Jakubal in Humboldt County. We talked about the rumors of the Mexican Mafia operating in the sublime beauty of the Mendocino National Forest, and I asked him how real the threat of violence, of organized crime, seemed to growers. “It’s always there, on the edges,” he said, and then he started remembering the violent episodes, rare but present: an original settler murdered in her house; one local murdered by some outsider who showed up asking where to make a big buy. This happens now and then,” Jakubal said, meaning the murders, “and everybody freaks out and says, ‘Oh my God, what are we doing to my children?’ But the next season, everyone is back out there growing again.”