The Truce On Drugs

Photo: Kenji Aoki

Cannabis is a highly persuadable plant. It thrives in Afghanistan; it grows beautifully in Mexico. It can prosper indoors or outdoors, in contained environments or expansive ones. Even on the essentials, like soil, light, and water, accommodations can be made. Cannabis in the wild will flower only once a year, early in the fall, but it can be tricked. Indoors, artificial light can be timed to mimic the patterns of the early sunsets of autumn, seducing the plant to bud; outside, the same effect is achieved by laying parabolic tarps, each shaped like the St. Louis arch, over the crop to obscure the sun. Nor does cannabis require expert botanists. There is a pattern that has been showing up in the criminal courts of Northern California in which a day laborer, often an illegal immigrant, is picked up for work, driven to tend a marijuana garden growing deep in Mendocino National Forest, and told that he is now in the employ of the Mexican Mafia. The guess, locally, is that the Mexican Mafia is not really involved, that this is just a ghost story to make sure the laborers stay put. But still, an untrained day laborer hired at Home Depot is all you need to manage a large crop. He’ll do fine.

Marijuana has remained mostly illegal, even as many Americans have come to consider it harmless and normal, and so it now occupies a uniquely ambiguous place in American law and life. There are a few places in the United States that have been known for decades for marijuana—far-northern California, Kentucky—where people are comfortable with sedition, and willing to live outside of the law. But during the last decade, as growing and selling marijuana began to edge out of the shadows, these places have become the sites of this country’s first experiments with tacit decriminalization. And so the business has shifted, too. “We have to face facts,” says a veteran California grower named Anna Hamilton. “We are in a commodity business.”

The full implications of this first became clear to Kristin Nevedal one day a few years ago, when some neighbors of hers in southern Humboldt County, four hours north of San Francisco, noticed a rainbow, discolored and distended, rising over their yard. This part of California is gorgeous, and hallucinatory, but even here a weird rainbow is an unusual sight, and so they investigated. Next door was a large indoor growing operation, and when they walked over, they saw an abandoned generator leaking fuel into Hacker Creek. Soon there were diesel rainbows up and down the stream. “The gentleman who owned the property was in Thailand,” Nevedal says. Nevedal helped found the association of cannabis growers in Humboldt, and she is a bit of an idealist about pot. Everything about the episode—the use of diesel, the indoor growing, the recklessness, but mostly the absenteeism—seemed an affront. She says “Thailand” the way a Sufi mystic might say “Dubai.”

That Humboldt County has remained so much a culture apart has something to do with the origami folds of its canyons and hills, which permit a certain isolation, but something more to do with pot. Driving through Myers Flat once, I saw a dreadlocked blonde girl, obese and braless, filling a van with male hitchhikers, like a cross between a community bus and a gender-reversal Manson Family. Most other back-to-the-land communes of the seventies eventually packed up and retreated, their members quietly reabsorbed into the suburban belt. The hippies in Humboldt had cannabis, which meant that though they were in many ways beyond the reach of government, they could pay for their own schools, for fire departments and private roads. They could see a future, and so they stayed.

Still, reminders of their alienation were everywhere. By the early eighties, the California law-enforcement agencies were conducting annual raids (called by their acronym, CAMP). You would walk onto your deck, on a sunny south slope, and suddenly a helicopter would be hovering there, cops with rifles scanning the valley below. Camouflaged swat teams jumped out of forest groves pointing guns. “People here can be a little paranoid anyway—there were an awful lot of Vietnam vets here early on,” one longtime grower says, and the raids made paranoia seem reasonable. But there were side benefits to this armed form of prohibition. One joke here is that the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting was actually the Campaign to Appreciate Marijuana Prices. If you were savvy enough to dodge through the forest with helicopters overhead, carrying plants on a canvas stretcher, if you knew how to trim a tall tanoak in the forest so that its topmost branches protected the crop from view while still letting in just enough sunlight, then you could really make it. By 1996, marijuana here was going for $4,000 a pound.

Photo: Kenji Aoki

That was the year California legalized medical marijuana. At first, nothing much changed in Humboldt. “Initially, the cops were cracking down,” remembers one local, Mikal Jakubal. “They would come in and say, ‘You’ve got twenty plants, I think you only need two or three of these. Cut ’em down.’ ” California hadn’t done much to regulate the market or to delineate how much one could grow, and amid a confounding patchwork of local ordinances a quiet accord developed between growers and town cops: Only if you grew much more than their neighbors were you likely to be troubled by police.

Part of the price of building a utopia in America is that eventually you must make some reckoning with capitalism. Soon, each neighbor seemed to be pushing beyond the standard by 5 percent, maybe 10. People noticed what was happening, and the hippies had long, dreamy-angsty conversations about whether this was all too corporate, too big (“ ‘Too big’ is always one more plant than you’re growing,” says one longtime grower), but it wasn’t really a hippie game anymore. Now there were out-of-state license plates and landholders who bulldozed their property, crammed it full of cannabis plants, slept in a trailer all summer, and then left after the harvest. (Humboldt’s marijuana economy generates more than $400 million each year.) Dealers from the East were coming through, mumbling to people at local grocery stores that they wanted a connection. A kind of crass instinct had infiltrated the dispensaries, too. “Gamblers, pornographers, illegal-drug dealers,” says Steve DeAngelo, the founder of the Oakland dispensary Harborside Health Center, remembering his rivals. “One guy had $600,000 in the back of his car. Another guy, in his basement there was a gold throne.”

Medicinal marijuana was also altering the basic chemistry of the drug. When pot was illegal, many growers worked to cultivate the drug’s basic intoxicant, THC, to produce a more potent high. But many new, medicinal customers wanted a softer sensation or a guard against panic attacks. So the growers reengineered the plant to cushion the drug’s effects. (DeAngelo’s dispensary offers some 250 strains, one of which was developed to help mitigate the symptoms of epilepsy.) An artisanal middle road seemed to open between working with drug dealers and enduring the ugliness of pot’s industrialization. There were meetings held with representatives from the county government to try to figure out how to brand Humboldt as cannabis country. These have now slowed down, because a group of federal prosecutors have targeted the dispensaries vigorously, but still there is bold talk everywhere about becoming what Napa Valley is to wine.

All of which has made Humboldt County something close to the opposite of what its post-sixties settlers imagined it might be: a model for how drug prohibition in America might evolve in the 21st century. Throughout the country, the once-clear lines of drug law have been steadily blurring into a messy crosshatch of locale and jurisdiction. Slowly, coaxed along on one side by the libertarian streak in the electorate and on the other by the disinterest of cops, we have begun to create many more places that look something like Humboldt County—a bustling economy where many people are growing more than their town allows, everyone is growing more than the Feds allow, and the industry is operating not on the familiar outlaw territory but within a new system whose contours they do not know and can’t define. This year’s harvest happened about six weeks ago, and Jakubal told me about what he called the “rip-off moon,” the full moon in September so bright that cannabis plots are vulnerable to thieves and poachers. Large growers have little recourse to the police. Instead, cameras and guards abound; one of Jakubal’s neighbors keeps a machete. And so: this bizarre lagoon. You go to branding meetings with county representatives. You speculate about whether legalization elsewhere will drive the prices down or create new customers. Your friends are arrested for driving the crop to market. At home, you keep a machete.

Three weeks ago, voters in Colorado and Washington chose to legalize marijuana for recreational use in both states—to make the drug legal to sell, legal to smoke, and legal to carry, so long as you are over 21 and you don’t drive while high. No doctor’s note is necessary. Marijuana will no longer be mostly regulated by the police, as if it were cocaine, but instead by the state liquor board (in Washington) and the Department of Revenue (in Colorado), as if it were whiskey. Colorado’s law has an extra provision that permits anyone to grow up to six marijuana plants at home and give away an ounce to friends.

Photo: Kenji Aoki

It seems very unlikely that the momentum for legalization will stop on its own. About 50 percent of voters around the country now favor legalizing the drug for recreational use (the number only passed 30 percent in 2000 and 40 percent in 2009), and the younger you are, the more likely you are to favor legal pot. Legalization campaigns have the backing of a few committed billionaires, notably George Soros and Peter Lewis, and the polls suggest that the support for legalization won’t simply be confined to progressive coalitions: More than a third of conservatives are for full legalization, and there is a gender gap, with more men in favor than women. Perhaps most striking of all, an organized opposition seems to have vanished completely. In Washington State, the two registered groups opposing the referendum had combined by early fall to raise a grand total of $16,000. “We have a marriage-equality initiative on the ballot here, and it is all over television, the radio, the newspapers,” Christine Gregoire, the Democratic governor of Washington, told me just before the election. When it comes to marijuana, “it’s really interesting. You don’t hear it discussed at all.” A decade ago, legalization advocates were struggling to corral pledges of support for medicinal pot from very liberal politicians. Now, the old fearful talk about a gateway drug has disappeared entirely, and voters in two states have chosen a marijuana regime more liberal than Amsterdam’s.

These votes suggest what may be a spreading, geographic Humboldt of the mind, in which the liberties of pot in far-northern California, and the unusually ambiguous legal regime there, metastasize around the country. If you live in Seattle and sell licensed marijuana, your operation could be perfectly legal from the perspective of the state government and committing a federal crime at the same time. It is hard to detect much political enthusiasm for a federal pot crackdown, but the complexities that come with these new laws may be hard for Washington to simply ignore. What happens, for instance, when a New York dealer secures a license and a storefront in Denver, and then illegally ships the weed back home? Economists who have studied these questions thoroughly say that they can’t rule out a scenario in which little changes in the consumption of pot—the same people will smoke who always have. But they also can’t rule out a scenario in which consumption doubles, or more than doubles, and pot is not so much less prevalent than alcohol.

And yet the prohibition on marijuana is something more than just a fading relic of the culture wars. It has also been part of the ad hoc assemblage of laws, treaties, and policies that together we call the “war on drugs,” and it is in this context that the votes on Election Day may have their furthest reach. When activists in California tried to fully legalize marijuana there in 2010, the most deeply felt opposition came from the president of Mexico, who called the initiative “absurd,” telling reporters that an America that legalized marijuana had “very little moral authority to condemn a Mexican farmer who for hunger is planting marijuana to sustain the insatiable North American market for drugs.” This year, the reaction from the chief strategist for the incoming Mexican president was even broader and more pointed. The votes in Colorado and Washington, he said, “change somewhat the rules of the game … we have to carry out a review of our joint policies in regard to drug trafficking and security in general.” The suggestion from south of the border wasn’t that cocaine should be subject to the same regime as marijuana. It was: If we are going to rewrite the rules on drug policy to make them more sensible, why stop at only one drug? Why go partway?

Something unexpected has happened in the past five years. The condemnations of the war on drugs—of the mechanized imprisonment of much of our inner ­cities, of the brutal wars sustained in Latin America at our behest, of the sheer cost of prohibition, now likely past a trillion dollars—have migrated out from the left-wing cul-de-sacs that they have long inhabited and into the political Establishment. “The war on drugs, though well-intentioned, has been a failure,” New Jersey governor Chris Christie said this summer. A global blue-ribbon panel that included both the former Reagan secretary of State George Shultz and Kofi Annan had reached the same conclusion the previous June: “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies.” The pressures from south of the border have grown far more urgent: The presidents of Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Belize, and Costa Rica have all called for a broad reconsideration of the drug war in the past year, and the Organization of American States is now trying to work out what realistic alternatives there might be.

The war on drugs has always depended upon a morbid equilibrium, in which the cost of our efforts to keep narcotics from ­users is balanced against the consequences—in illness and death—of more widely spread use. But thanks in part to enforcement, addiction has receded in America, meaning, ironically, that the benefits of continuing prohibition have diminished. Meanwhile, the wars in Mexico and elsewhere have escalated the costs, killing nearly 60,000 people in six years. Together those developments have shifted the ethical equation. “There’s now no question,” says Mark Kleiman of UCLA, an influential drug-policy scholar, “that the costs of the drug war itself exceed the costs of drug use. It’s not even close.”

In many ways, what is happening right now is a collection of efforts, some liberating and some scary, to reset that moral calibration, to find a new equilibrium. The prohibition on drugs did not begin as neatly as the prohibition on alcohol once did, with a constitutional amendment, and it is unlikely to end neatly, with an act of a legislature or a new international treaty. Nor is the war on drugs likely to end with something that looks exactly like a victory. What is happening instead is more complicated and human: Without really acknowledging it, we are beginning to experiment with a negotiated surrender.

In 2005, a 33-year-old man named Shaidon Blake—a senior member of the Bounty Hunter Bloods, from Watts, California—began to travel back and forth between the West Coast and Baltimore by bus. In the lunatic Talmud of gang codes, the Bounty Hunter Bloods are the verifying rabbis, and Blake came to Baltimore at first to determine which local crews were actually Bloods and which were not. But he saw something else that captured his imagination: He saw Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Avenue. “It’s the largest open-air drug market for heroin in the world,” Blake would tell police later, according to the Baltimore Sun. The stream of addicts arriving to buy was constant; even now, walking through, you see the bearded young white guys panhandling on the edge of an entirely black neighborhood, in a rapid slide from hipster into something more desiccated and lost. Blake set up shop. He told police he could clear $180,000 in a single day, and he operated theatrically—once, he had a subordinate stabbed to death with a samurai sword. There was a violent giddiness to it. “Pennsylvania Avenue,” Blake told the cops, “is a freaking gold mine.”

Drug policing in Baltimore, then, had itself reached a kind of perverse mechanized perfection. The department was following the theories then in vogue, perfected in New York, that emphasized zero tolerance of even minor crimes and strict enforcement of low-level drug possession and dealing. In Central Booking, new arrestees were fitted with a bar code so they could be speedily scanned, processed, and then warehoused. “Like self-checkout at Safeway,” says Frederick Bealefeld, who retired this summer after five years as police commissioner. In the city’s most dystopian year, 2005, Baltimore arrested 108,000 people, out of a total population of 660,000 men, women, and children. The drug war had become an open trawl through the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

If you were to freeze the frame right there, around Blake and Bealefeld in 2005, you would see the inner-city drug war as we have come to understand it—in the terms deftly captured by the HBO show The Wire: a fixed, insatiable demand for drugs, and a police department devoted to incarcerating the city’s own citizens on an industrial scale. The tragedies of the drug war, in this image, are permanent, locked into place by the economic realities of the drug traffic.

But even in Baltimore the drug traffic is changing all the time. Here, for instance, is something real: The long boom in American demand for cocaine, the economic fact that shaped the modern traffic, is declining, rapidly, by many measures. According to the federal government’s preferred measure, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of people abusing cocaine has halved since 2006. No other illegal drug has replaced cocaine: Heroin, far less prevalent, has held steady, and methamphetamine use seems to have peaked nearly a decade ago. “This decline,” says Peter Reuter, professor of public affairs at the University of Maryland and a leading thinker on drug policy, “is very much real.”

Cocaine addicts are aging, and they aren’t being replaced. In the early nineties, the average age of an addict, Reuter says, was about 27. Now it is about 40. Plenty of people are still trying the drug—the rates of first-time use haven’t dropped—but for reasons that haven’t fully been discerned, “they aren’t becoming addicts,” Reuter says. The epidemic has now been waning for fifteen years, long enough to think the trends will last and that the florid paranoia, broken families, and death of the crack-cocaine epidemic will not be a permanent feature of American life but a cultural artifact of the ugliness of the eighties. “It is awful, but many cocaine addicts are dying,” says Jonathan Caulkins, a drug scholar at Carnegie Mellon. It is awful. It also makes new ideas possible.

Each drug raises different questions. The problem of marijuana is how to accommodate a drug we no longer fear. The problem of cocaine and of heroin is how to control those substances that we do fear but can’t eradicate, and how to weigh their harms. In Baltimore, Bealefeld began to fix on these questions. He was a narcotics-unit lifer, the grandson and great-grandson of city cops. But he had joined the force in 1981, five years or so before the city really suffered the ravages of crack and cheap heroin, and in his memory there existed a model of policing in which the drug traffic played a far smaller role. At community meetings as commissioner, Bealefeld listened to agonized citizen monologues about the drug dealers and the ruin that accompanied them—the casual display of guns, the crazed addicts. But when Bealefeld really pressed them, trying to identify the source of their fear, he realized they weren’t worried about the drug trade itself but about the violence. To Bealefeld, it started to seem as if the pre-drug-war way of thinking might still apply. What if being a good cop didn’t mean turning yourself into a soldier in the drug war? What if the drug war was actually a distraction?

Bealefeld has an obsessive streak, and soon he was pouring over the matrices that predicted violence: What made you likely to be a murderer? It was true that nearly all of Baltimore’s murderers and murder victims had drug arrests in their past. But in many parts of Baltimore, nearly everyone seemed to have some involvement in dealing—the narcotics-unit lingo was “8-88,” meaning there were participants in the drug trade as young as 8 years old or as old as 88. Trying to organize policing around drugs, given these circumstances, could only mean a broad roundup of the neighborhood, and though this had worked very well in New York, it had worked much less well when smaller departments (New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore) tried the same model—and it had the additional effects of overwhelming jails and probation systems and alienating the community. “We are fishing with a net,” Bealefeld started to say publicly, “and we need to be fishing with a spear.”

The spear he found was gun priors. Encoded in Baltimore’s murder records was a singularly interesting piece of data: Over half of the murderers in his city had previously been arrested for a handgun violation. The universe of offenders in Baltimore with prior gun convictions was very small, and most of them were serious criminals. Focusing on them seemed plausible. The commissioner did not publicly declare the war on drugs a failure, though he believes that to be the case, or petition the legislature to decriminalize possession. “We just deemphasized it,” he says.

By this point, the drug war was nearly a quarter-century old, and its accompanying mythology of kingpins and vast international distribution networks had its own power. “My workforce,” Bealefeld says, “grew up watching 60 Minutes episodes of Jamaican posses hatcheting off people’s heads, and the drug wars in Colombia, helicopter gunships, and—craziness. They’re like, ‘That’s me. I’m all in.’ ” It seemed to Bealefeld as if even the most basic policing instincts were now built around drugs. When someone like Shaidon Blake materializes from the chaos of the street, and bodies seem to turn up around him, Bealefeld says, “The boys love those ­cases—‘Let’s do a wiretap!’ ‘Let’s get the helicopters!’ ‘Let’s get all the police shit!’ ” Bealefeld’s “educated guess” is that 5 percent of all drugs in Baltimore move through sophisticated criminal organizations with a clear hierarchy—nearly all the activity is more chaotic, low-level. And yet the myth of the kingpin persists. The habits of drug policing were so ingrained that cops, rolling up on corners, would simply follow first movement, chasing whoever ran. “It’s almost instinctual,” Bealefeld says. But the most dangerous person—the guy holding the gun—almost never ran. Bealefeld had surveillance footage that he showed in training of a group of cops approaching a crew standing outside Lexington Market and then chasing those who bolted. Left standing on the corner with the one cop who remained was a suspect with a sawed-off shotgun stuffed down his pants. Most of the cops were chasing the drug slingers, and they were missing what was really important.

Quietly, in experiments in a few influential police departments around the country, a new set of tools for policing is being tested, as cops have come to realize that violence tends to be driven not by neighborhoods but by small and identifiable populations of exceptional individuals. Working with arrest records on the crime-ridden far West Side of Chicago, a young Yale sociologist named Andrew Papachristos discovered that he could create a social map of violence (including only people who were arrested together with other members of the network) that encompassed just 4 percent of the people in the neighborhood but virtually all of the murderers and murder victims. Each time you “co-offended” with another member of the network, it turned out, you grew 25 percent more likely to be murdered. The universe of the violent and the vulnerable, Papachristos found, was far tinier than the universe of people involved in drugs, or in gangs; it was a small circle of people who all knew one another.

“This is a move that we’re seeing throughout really thoughtful policing, going from addressing the broad category”—drug dealing, gangs—“to the narrow one,” the lethally violent, says David Kennedy, the influential policing theorist at CUNY’s John Jay School of Criminal Justice. He points to the innovations of Charles Beck, the Los Angeles police chief, who has refocused his city’s resources away from gang policing; and Garry McCarthy in Chicago, who has used Papachristos’s work to help target interventions. Even in New York, the police department has begun to monitor social media to track the boasts and feuds that propel arguments between small groups of friends into murderous exchanges. “And then Fred [Bealefeld],” Kennedy says, “has his own very explicit version of this.”

Bealefeld didn’t have any of this information when he started in Baltimore. All he had was his list of criminals with gun priors. So his department created a registry and required each beat cop in the city to check biweekly with every local gun offender to remind them they were being watched. The state parole and probation department was overwhelmed by the mass of drug offenders, so Bealefeld asked if instead of monitoring everyone closely, they could just pay attention to a hundred gun offenders. (They could.) Other commissioners had sent out departmental commendations when cops seized large quantities of drugs, but Bealefeld stopped doing that and started sending out letters only when gun offenders were brought in.

It worked. In 2011, Bealefeld’s last full year, his department made only 65,000 arrests, down 43,000 from the figure before he took over. The cops weren’t letting serious crime go—murders were down sharply over the same period, from 269 to 196. Many of the missing arrests were for low-level drug crime. What happened was a kind of reset, a replacement of drug-war policing with another mentality that was more risky but more precise. Perhaps, as Bealefeld worries, the new mindset won’t last. But for the moment, it has meant 43,000 people last year who weren’t locked up, who didn’t have a conviction on their record, who were not subjected to the inherent brutality of the system. The message he had wanted to get across to his officers, Bealefeld says, was “that it’s always okay to go after bad guys with guns rather than guys smoking weed.”

But this seems like the easy case, a couple of kids smoking weed. At lunch with Bealefeld recently, I ask him about a harder one. I live in Baltimore, and when I first moved here, our mostly yuppie neighborhood had a local drug dealer called Shawn who lived in the adjacent housing project. He would meet his customers in the parking lot of my building, take a drive around the block, exchange heroin for money in the car, then get out. Some of the customers were high and freaked out, but Shawn himself was an obese, friendly guy selling deeply damaging drugs more or less quietly. What about him? Was he worth a cop’s attention?

Every form of decriminalization—even Bealefeld’s form of willful, selective ignorance—requires some measure of cognitive dissonance. The drug trade is vicious, and Shawn was perpetuating it, in public defiance of the cops. The likelihood that Shawn would eventually do something violent was not zero. The natural instinct is simply to lock him up, to be done with him, even if you know that in the aggregate locking up every Shawn is what gets you fatherless neighborhoods and underground tapes in which NBA stars urge citizens not to snitch. What Bealefeld was trying to do was to dwell in this dissonance, so that even if the drug plague was not fully ending, the obsession over drugs could end, so we could come to regard low-level heroin dealing as basically an economic crime, not so dissimilar from stealing a car.

It turns out that Bealefeld once worked my neighborhood and remembers when the drug dealing was far more public. He answers carefully, trying to be precise. “To the extent that they’re getting in cars and driving around and doing their transaction, it’s not the same—I would posit to you—as standing behind buildings handing out dime bags of crack. So while it is a scourge to have that going on, it’s not the same as the other,” Bealefeld says. “You have to be very upfront. You have to say, ‘We’re going to focus on these other problems first.’ ”

A few days ago, I found myself fixated on a video clip that had circulated online in late 2010 of a drug gang in Ciudad Juárez executing an extortionist who worked for their rivals. Even in the Roman advertising, snuff world of Mexican YouTube execution tapes, some images stick with you. The extortionist is a heavyset woman, 29 years old, and as the video begins she is standing between two masked gunmen, looking at the camera, her face in a state of complete collapse. She has been caught red-handed, with a sheet with 40 names of businesses alongside handwritten amounts of money. She confesses, her voice a bit blank. Mercifully, or possibly for dramatic effect, her killers don’t show her execution, just a photo of her dead body placed in a street, a rose laid on her back.

Ciudad Juárez in 2010 was an extraordinary time. The Juárez cartel—in the midst of one war with the more powerful, wealthier barons of Sinaloa, and another, simultaneous war with the battalions of police and troops sent by the federal government—could no longer support many of its foot soldiers and turned them loose to fund themselves. The economy had collapsed, many of the city’s factory buildings vacant and the middle class departed; criminals hijacked houses, holding the residents captive for days at a time; in a police force of 3,000 officers, 200 were killed. The violence in Ciudad Juárez has abated a bit this year, but it has only seemed to move elsewhere around Mexico. Right now, the most violent area in the country is far from the Rio Grande, in the coastal state of Guerrero, where an impenetrably complex street war has broken out in Acapulco among at least fourteen street gangs.

In August 2011, five years into an exhausting term as president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón arrived at a Monterrey casino in the aftermath of yet another unfathomably brutal attack. The casino’s owner had reportedly refused to pay bribes to members of the Zetas cartel, and so they sent gunmen to douse the entrance of the casino with gasoline and set the building on fire. Fifty-two people died, 42 of them women. Calderón, addressing the horror, spoke at length, eventually turning to the consumers north of the border. “[If Americans] are determined and resigned to consume drugs, then they should seek market alternatives in order to cancel the criminals’ stratospheric profits,” he said. By “market alternatives,” he meant using regulation and taxation to control the flow of drugs. Though Calderón had previously scoffed at American efforts to legalize marijuana, he now seemed to be suggesting some form of decriminalization. The stresses of the moment were so intense that no one knew if he really meant it, but a month later he repeated the case and then, this September, he made it again at the United Nations. By then he was joined by the presidents of Colombia and Guatemala, both staunch drug warriors, and eventually several more Latin heads of state. “What is the saying you have in the United States?” says Daniel Mejía Londoño, the director of the Institute for Drugs and Security at the University of the Andes in Bogotá. “Only Nixon could go to China.”

The political momentum south of the border has moved well past the American consensus. Here, we are beginning to talk about legalizing marijuana; there, politicians are speculating about altering the prohibition of much more toxic drugs—cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine. But even if such a broad legalization were to occur in Mexico and South America, there would likely be no substantial reduction in violence. It’s the price of hard drugs in the United States—not Mexico—that drives the profits of the drug trade. Which may be why the Organization of American States’ comprehensive report on drug policy in the hemisphere seems unlikely to give much prominence to legalization, according to several people involved in the study, focusing instead on important but incremental measures such as improving criminal-justice systems in Central America and developing programs to divert young people from gangs. One expert brought in to consult on the project says, “There’s no there there.”

Another reason legalization may not do much to diminish the violence is that some of the largest Mexican cartels, as they have moved more deeply into extortion and kidnapping, may be evolving out of the reach of drug policy. The problem is that some of the largest Mexican groups have moved deeper into extortion and kidnapping and have become less dependent on narcotics. “My fear is that if you legalize drugs tomorrow, I don’t think you’re going to reduce the number of cartels or the amount of homicide or the flow of illicit goods,” says Adam Blackwell, a Canadian diplomat who is the secretary for multi­dimensional security at the Organization for American States. “Focusing too much on drugs takes us away from the real issues, which are”—he searches for the right word. “Structures. Cartel structures. Gang structures.”

Part of what Bealefeld had worked to dispel, in Baltimore, was the myth of powerful criminal structures: The police, he kept trying to tell his officers, had more leverage over violence than they thought. But in parts of Mexico, these structures are very real and very powerful, and so accepting the presence of the drug traffic and focusing instead on the violence means making a very different kind of compromise.

In Tijuana, beginning in 2008, an obese psychopath named Teodoro Garcia Simental, affiliated with the Sinaloa Cartel, which was battling for control of the city’s drug routes, allegedly exercised what must be the most openly insane regime in the history of the drug wars: He is said to have dismembered 300 victims and had his henchmen dissolve them in barrels of lye. At one point, he allegedly arranged nine of his victims, several of them uniformed police officers, on a street, so that they spelled out his nickname. By 2010, though, just as his own side prevailed, Garcia Simental was arrested in a Baja California resort town, and the wars in Tijuana have since receded, with the Sinaloa cartel controlling the traffic and the city, almost astonishingly, settling back into something approaching normality.

This is the main triumph of the Mexican drug war, but it may itself reflect an unintentional compromise. David Shirk, who is the director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, believes that the pattern of violence in Tijuana doesn’t support the official narrative of a slow triumph of the police over the gangs. Instead, he sees a clear pattern of spikes and declines in violence—an indication, Shirk says, that in the midst of this violence was a kind of rational deal-making, truces made and broken between the cartels and perhaps the police. (The cynical view is that the cartel simply offered Garcia Simental up, once his madness had become more liability than asset.) The long current lull, Shirk says, likely reflects the Sinaloa cartel’s triumph. Murders are down, public safety restored, and yet the Sinaloa cartel has only been strengthened. “If what you’ve done in the end is hand control from one trafficking organization to another, then was it worth it?” Shirk asks. “You can have a debate about that.”

Each of these grand bargains, whether explicit or tacit, reveals a different weighting of leverage between the state and the outlaws. In Mexico, the state is weaker than it is in Baltimore; in the small countries in Central America, the imbalance of powers is even more extreme. Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are in the midst of incursions by the cartels and now have three of the four highest national murder rates in the world. Here the outlaws can often outgun the law. When the Zetas infiltrated northern Guatemala in 2011—killing a rancher who had stolen a drug shipment, then massacring more than two dozen peasants—the president of Guatemala asked for the creation of a NATO-type organization to defend against the traffickers. He considered the threat to be existential.

Early this year, a former Salvadorean guerrilla fighter named Raul Mijango began meeting secretly with the leaders of the nation’s two largest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha 13 and Barrio 18, in prison, in an effort to negotiate a form of truce. The Salvadorean street gangs (each of which was founded in Los Angeles) are not major international movers of drugs, but they are known for an almost tribal violence, and in recent years, the conflicts between the two groups has threatened to overrun the state.

Mijango would not say who authorized his mission, though it was widely assumed that the government had sent him. The gang leaders in prison did not consult their allies in Los Angeles. But Mijango, a former guerrilla fighter, knew what exhaustion looked like. “I sensed from the beginning that they felt that maybe this was the opportunity they were looking for,” he says. In February, he asked the leaders to meet in the same room in a prison that had been set aside for that purpose, and though “the idea did not please them,” Mijango says, he felt some trust had been brokered when they saw one another face-to-face. Soon he had the framework of an agreement—in which the gangs would call off their feud with one another, would stop recruiting children. In return, the leaders wanted to be sent to other, more congenial prisons, where they could be closer to their families. That was all right with the authorities, and so, in May, the leaders were transferred.

The truce was not formally announced. The way that it reached the outside world was that the killing simply stopped. El Salvador had been averaging fourteen murders a day for years; the number soon fell to five. The secretary-general of the OAS arrived to help finalize the peace, and gang members placed symbolic machine guns at his feet. For six months, against most expectations, the peace has seemed to hold.

Abroad, the Salvadorean truce has been met with skepticism. “It is very interesting,” says John Walsh, director of the drug-policy program at the Washington Office on Latin America. “It is also scary. Particularly when we don’t know what has been promised to the gangs.” Because of the OAS’s involvement, Blackwell has been forced to defend the truce publicly, and a few weeks ago, sitting in his office in Washington, I ask the diplomat whether it is wise for El Salvador to be negotiating with gangs.

“My philosophy’s always been the alternative’s worse,” Blackwell says. “If you think this is risky and you don’t want us to do this, then what’re you gonna do? You’ve got 300 percent overpopulation of the prisons, 400 percent overpopulation of the police lockups, 60,000 [gang members]. What exactly do you suggest? There is no manual for this.”

The first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, after its liberation from British colonial rule, was a left-wing historian and theorist named Eric Williams, and before his political career began, he spent some time studying the lives of the most brutish first-generation slaveholders, Englishmen who traveled to the Caribbean and indulged in unspeakable atrocities against their African slaves. In England, Williams discovered, many of them had been genuinely decent men—good fathers and husbands, yes, but also often very modern, liberal in their sympathies. Williams theorized that something happened to the slaveholders—something happens to us—when they moved beyond the line of civilization, past the reach of society and law. We evolve. We become cruder, more animalistic; we give ourselves special moral dispensations. We grow estranged from ourselves.

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.”

The Truce On Drugs