Ouster of a Texas Democrat Casts Light on U.S. Drug War

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Cliff Owen / AP

Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas prepares to board Air Force One, ahead of President Barack Obama, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Aug. 31, 2010. In a major upset, Reyes lost the race for the Democratic nomination to retain his congressional seat in far West Texas May 29, 2012. The 67-year-old Reyes was first elected to Congress in 1996.

Few Americans appreciate the grisly Mexican drug war reality better than the residents of El Paso, Texas. Their city is one of the safest in the U.S., but the town just across the Rio Grande – Juárez, Mexico – is the world’s most dangerous, with a murder rate of more than 200 per 100,000 people. El Pasoans are well aware that the Mexican narcos spilling all that blood purchase their high-powered weapons with the more than $30 billion that cartels earn annually trafficking drugs to Americans – the lion’s share of which comes from the sale not of heroin or cocaine or methamphetamine, but marijuana.

Many if not most El Pasoans are also aware that moderate marijuana use is widely (and scientifically) considered no more harmful than moderate alcohol consumption. Legalizing marijuana is therefore a feasible way for the U.S. to help put a sizable dent in the drug cartels’ finances – as well as save money in the U.S., where law enforcement wastes billions of dollars each year prosecuting and incarcerating marijuana offenders. Which is why, three years ago, El Paso City Council members like Beto O’Rourke voted unanimously to ask Washington to consider legalizing more benign drugs like marijuana. “If you live on the border,” O’Rourke told me then, “you see that the old drug-war emperor has no clothes.” El Paso mayor John Cook vetoed the resolution, but the council was set to override him – until U.S. Representative Silvestre Reyes, an El Paso County Democrat, forced it to back off with threats that the city would lose federal funding.

On Tuesday, it was voters in Texas’ 16th congressional district who forced out Reyes, an eight-term incumbent, in the Democratic primary. The winner: Beto O’Rourke, the same guy who led the call for pot legalization. Reyes, a former U.S. Border Patrol honcho, didn’t lose to O’Rourke solely because of the marijuana issue. A number of factors did him in. A conservative Houston super PAC, The Campaign for Primary Accountability, which targets entrenched incumbents in both parties, spent $195,000 going after Reyes on issues like onerous congestion at U.S.-Mexico border crossings and Reyes’ alleged use of influence to help win a border security contract for a firm that employed his children. (Reyes has called the charges “outright lies.”)

Still, the fact that a candidate who is so openly supportive of marijuana legalization can win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives – because the 16th is so heavily Democratic, O’Rourke’s primary victory virtually assures him the November general election as well – is a finger in the eye of the U.S. drug war establishment. That includes the Obama Administration, which opposes marijuana legalization.

Obama’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, told me last summer that the White House firmly believes legalizing drugs, even pot, would lead to “devastating public health dangers.” But critics like Ethan Nadelmann, director of Drug Policy Action, the lobbying arm of the non-profit Drug Policy Alliance, which backs pot legalization, believe the Administration is scared of looking “soft” on drugs in an election year – even though a recent Gallup Poll found that 50% of Americans now support legalizing marijuana while only 46% now oppose it. Either way, says Nadelmann, “O’Rourke’s victory demonstrates that support for drug policy reform is no detriment to electoral success.”

Nadelmann’s group also points to the states of Colorado and Washington, which have put marijuana legalization on their November ballots, and to Oregon, where earlier this month Ellen Rosenblum, who supports legal access to medical marijuana, defeated former Interim U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton, who opposes it, in the state’s Democratic primary race for Attorney General. So far no Republican has filed to challenge Rosenblum, meaning she’ll most likely win the position.

O’Rourke’s upset of Reyes also comes on the heels of Obama’s participation in the Summit of the Americas in Colombia last month. There, Latin American leaders – who, like Mexico’s president, suffer the brunt of the violence that results from America’s insatiable drug consumption – made it clear they want to see a different, more demand-oriented anti-drug strategy from Washington, even if that means legalization. Obama politely rejected the notion. But if his hemispheric counterparts can’t persuade him that legalizing marijuana won’t lead to “devastating” public health consequences, maybe the U.S. voters with a ringside seat to the drug war’s horrors can.

-with reporting by Hilary Hylton/Austin