A year ago, dismayed at the violence rocking its sister city of Ciudad Juárez just across the Rio Grande River, the city council in the remote Texas border city of El Paso unanimously passed a resolution calling for serious consideration of ending drug prohibition, only to see it vetoed by Mayor John Cook. Then, after heavy-handed warnings from US Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) and the city's delegation in the state legislature that such a resolution could threaten the city's funding, the city council backed down, failing to override Cook's veto.
With those votes and the controversy surrounding them, El Paso was thrust into -- and helped ignite -- a national debate on the country's drug policies. This week, the El Paso city council returned to the issue when, led by Councilmembers Beto O'Rourke and Steve Ortega, it considered a resolution calling for a "comprehensive examination of our country's failed War on Drugs," and advocating for "the repeal of ineffective marijuana laws" and their replacement with taxed, regulated, and controlled marijuana production, sales, and consumption for adults.
The resolution also called for an immediate meeting between Mexican President Felipe Calderon and US President Obama to address prohibition-related violence in Mexico, rejected the "militaristic" approach of Plan Merida, the three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug assistance scheme for Mexico and Central America, called for that aid to be tied to strict human rights reporting requirements, and called for any additional aid to Mexico to be aimed at improving the country's "social, educational, and economic development."
"It's up to us to act and make some tough decisions and do some uncomfortable things," said O'Rourke, as he urged his colleagues to support the resolution.
"The fuel to the fire in Juárez is the profits of a black market," said Councilwoman Susie Byrd, explaining why she supported the marijuana regulation language.
But not all the council members were in accord. "We didn't talk about demand reduction. We didn't talk about prevention, and we didn't talk about treatment," said Councilman Carl Robinson, explaining his vote against the resolution.
The public also joined in the debate, with University of Texas-El Paso political science professor Tony Payan refreshing the council's member about the city's historic role in marijuana prohibition. "It was the first city council a hundred years ago that passed the first resolution forbidding the use of marijuana," he said. "One hundred years later we've come full circle, and now we're debating 100 years of a failed policy."
"We've got this war that's cost us billions of dollars in Iraq and there's a huge problem next, right next door!" said El Paso resident Eric Contreras.
"It is time to change the laws because drug prohibition is a failed policy," said El Paso resident Richard Newton, a retired veteran US Customs agent and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "The bottom line is that the reason you have cartels in Juárez fighting each other is to sell drugs in the United States. They sell drugs because they can make money. Get rid of the money and you get rid of the cartels."
Not everyone was on board, however. "Quit calling it our sister city. No one wants a disease-riddled prostitute as a sister," said El Paso resident Armando Cardoza. [Ed: That was rude.]
After debating the resolution on Monday, the council voted, arriving at a 4-4 tie vote. Once again, Mayor Cook swooped in to block reform, even in the form of a resolution. His vote against the resolution broke the tie.
But that wasn't the end of it. The council then amended the resolution by dropping the paragraph referring to marijuana regulation and unceremoniously passed the amended resolution on a 6-2 vote. O'Rourke was one of the no votes, saying that regulating marijuana was an integral part of his approach.
Still, the El Paso city council has gone on record as condemning current US drug policies and demanding a shift to a smarter, more humane approach to drug sales and use. And it has clearly called on the US government to take a smarter, more humane approach to the drug violence just across the river in Juárez.
When asked what is was about El Paso that made it amenable to passage of such a resolution critical of the drug war, LEAP's Newton mentioned the city's unique location. Tucked into the triangular tip of far West Texas, El Paso not only borders bloody Ciudad Juárez, with its daily prohibition-related killings, but it also borders New Mexico, a state that has been a leader in drug policy reforms, ranging from medical marijuana to passing the country's first Good Samaritan drug overdose law to working with the Drug Policy Alliance on methamphetamine prevention and education programs.
"This is a strange city for Texas," Newton continued. "The state is very Republican, but there aren't any Republicans in El Paso. Bush didn't carry El Paso County. Silvestre Reyes has not had a Republican run against for several elections now. I wouldn't say El Paso is especially liberal or progressive, but it is Democratic."
Last year, Mayor Cook and Congressman Reyes pulled the plug on the resolution, but there is no sign yet that we will see a repeat this year. That would be progress, even if O'Rourke lost his marijuana regulation language. And he and the rest of the council still have three years to make up for city council's 1913 vote to criminalize marijuana. The city was a leader then; it can be a leader once again, only this time in the right direction.