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Unlikely alliance pushes legalizing pot

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Unlikely alliance pushes legalizing pot

NORML & law enforcement group say drug war isn't working

  • Jon Gettel and Mary Mackenzie of NORML, which advocates legalizing marijuana for responsible use by adults.
    Allison Mullally/ArizonaNewsService.comJon Gettel and Mary Mackenzie of NORML, which advocates legalizing marijuana for responsible use by adults.

Drugs and violent crime in Southern Arizona have created an unlikely commonality between a pro-marijuana group and law enforcement officials, both of whom think that legalizing pot would eliminate the driving force behind much of the illicit drug trade along the border.

Even though the U.S. Border Patrol works 24/7 to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and prevent drug trafficking through patrols, checkpoints, fencing and high-tech measures, agents reported that from Jan. 7 through Feb. 3, they found more than 7,800 pounds of marijuana in the Tucson Sector.

If the U.S. legalizes marijuana, the Mexican drug cartels' biggest "cash crop" would be eliminated, said Mary Mackenzie, founder and treasurer of the Tucson chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, which advocates legalizing marijuana for responsible use by adults.

"Prohibition creates the drug cartel," Mackenzie said. "Without prohibition, there's no business in it for them. Our government keeps the cartels in business, it keeps the prices high and it puts decent Americans in prison. It's not a war on drugs — it's a war on Americans."

The group LEAP, or Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an international organization of current and former law officers, agrees that illegal drugs should be legalized and regulated. Its members argue that legalization would reduce harmful consequences from fighting the war on drugs and lessen the incidences of death, disease, crime and addiction.

"Prohibition has created the black market," said Richard Mack, who served as sheriff of Graham County, for two terms in the 1990s and is a member of LEAP. The cartels "are trying to push drugs on our youth for huge profitability.

"They wouldn't do it otherwise. If marijuana was legal then we wouldn't have to give money to these criminals."

The issue's not that simple, said Tucson Police Department Lt. Greg Roberts, who is one of seven officers in the department's Home Invasions Unit, which was established last year to investigate the crime that is often linked with drug trafficking. The local unit was the first of five home invasion squads in the country, he said.

"We work with federal and state departments to stop the drugs coming into the country," Roberts said. "If we stop (the drugs) before they enter the country, then the violence will stop."

Often the home invasions occur when drug dealers believe a person is storing large amounts of drugs in his or her home and is particularly violent. Police say home invasions are inherently violent crimes because of the excessive force used by assailants to subdue victims.

Anne Hilby, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Attorney General's Office, calls drug cartels "highly sophisticated and adaptable units of organized crime. They make up for the most dangerous myriad of organized crime in the United States today."

Roberts said that in Tucson 107 home invasions were reported from January through Dec. 1, 2009. More than 90 percent of the Tucson home invasions directly relate to the drug trafficking across the Mexican border, he added.

Only 28 cases of home invasions in Tucson have been successfully resolved, leading to the arrests of 45 people, Roberts said.

Tucson's location along Interstate 10 – which runs coast to coast — makes it a prime corridor to move drugs, people and money, said Lt. Octavio Gradillas of the Nogales Police Department.

And because the cartels network all over the country, home invasions have occurred in areas as far away as the Northwest and the Northeast.

"Cartels don't adhere to jurisdictional boundaries," Hilby said. "Therefore, different law enforcement agencies from different areas all need to collaborate to have any hopes of slowing down the border-related crime."

Groups that have long advocated legalizing marijuana are starting to reference the violence of the cross-border drug trafficking as reason to make marijuana legal in the United States. In Arizona, advocates are working to get a measure that would legalize marijuana for medical use on the state ballot in November.

LEAP is part of the campaign, too.

Mack, who first gained national attention by fighting the federal Brady Bill, which required state and local law enforcement to conduct a background check on anyone wishing to purchase a handgun, said he spent three years as an undercover narcotics officer for the Provo, Utah, Police Department and became cynical about the war on drugs.

"Here I am risking my life to stop a problem that we have very minimal effect on whatsoever," he said. "I became disenchanted. The drug war wasn't working, and law enforcement was pretending we were minimizing the problem."

Still, there is disagreement on the claim that ending marijuana prohibition would significantly hurt the cartels, which are involved in massive networks of crime that include human trafficking, gun smuggling and money laundering.

"Even if marijuana were legal, the cartels could quickly adapt and focus their energies to any of their other criminal enterprises," Hilby said. "The only way to really fight back is to attack the cartels on all four fronts."

Not so, Mack said.

"What we've been doing has failed miserably," he said. "We need to absolutely put legalization on the board of ideas."

“What we’ve been doing has failed miserably. We need to absolutely put legalization on the board of ideas.”

— former Graham County sheriff Richard Mack

On the Web

National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws:

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition:

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