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Myers: Operation unintended consequences

With election day and ballot Question Two looming, this seems like a good time to re-tell the story of Operation Intercept.

In 1969 the Nixon administration decided to clamp down on border crossings between the Mexico and the United States in an effort to dry up the supply in the U.S. of marijuana. All our best drug experts and warriors were put to work planning it.

Forty-seven years ago today, on September 21, 1969, traffic at 30 border stations suddenly slowed to a crawl on a Sunday afternoon as U.S. tourists returning to the U.S. found their cars being searched. Traffic backed up for miles. A couple of thousand people were stripped nude for searches, which sounds impressive except that it was just nine-tenths of one percent of those who crossed. Even the car searches went from a normal average of one minute to at most three minutes, so it wasn’t THAT thorough, just attention-getting.

After 20 days, the U.S. called it off and Treasury Secretary David Kennedy and Attorney General John Mitchell declared it a success.

Here’s what we know in retrospect.

1. The best part of this operation is that the amount of marijuana seized was about the same as before the operation started—150 pounds a day.

2. Smugglers promptly found other ways of delivery to the U.S., particularly by air. And once they started, they didn’t stop. Consumer Reports later noted, “This discovery by drug smugglers of the vulnerability of the United States-Mexican border to aerial intrusion was to have disastrous aftereffects. Long after Operation Intercept itself was discontinued, aerial smugglers continued to use the techniques pioneered in September 1969.” Our government is always helping business interests.

3. There had already been a shortage of marijuana in the U.S. because a wet Mexican season had slowed drying. The diversion of marijuana from the border to other forms of delivery then increased the shortage until transport from remote Nevada and Arizona airstrips could be arranged. Soon, a major shortage of marijuana in the U.S. prompted a U.S. government spokesperson to say, “It is raising their cost beyond the means of most young people in America.”

4. He seemed to think this was a good thing. (Remember, these were our best people—drug “experts” and drug warriors.) With the marijuana supply reduced, smokers started trying other substances, particularly heroin and LSD. Soon clinics throughout southern California were hit with a wave of new smack users. California physician David Smith told Newsweek, “The government line is that the use of marijuana leads to more dangerous drugs. The fact is that the lack of marijuana leads to more dangerous drugs.”

5. The feds had been running a public relations campaign that described LSD as just as dangerous as marijuana. Since marijuana was known to wide swaths of the population to be pretty harmless, when a shortage of marijuana came along, many of them switched to LSD on the say-so of the government of its safety.

6. Cultivation of marijuana immediately increased in other locales and methods, including New England, the Midwest, and what George Carlin dubbed Toledo Window Box—flower pots and other homey alternatives.

7. Vietnam veterans came to the rescue, sending or bringing as much marijuana as they could get away with to the U.S. U.S. prosecutors had a habit of not incurring the wrath of the public by prosecuting war heroes. And the servicemembers brought back some very good stuff, noted for its potency.

8. Who DID those prosecutors charge as a result of Operation Intercept? Well, only 33 people were arrested at the border, so probably not many.

With the best expertise the U.S. government had to offer putting their minds to the job, the United States demonstrated its own lack of expertise, strengthened the smugglers, increased marijuana supply from within the U.S., and demonstrated that marijuana is a barrier drug and not a gateway drug, that it prevents harder drug use.

Your tax dollars at work. By all means, let’s keep these drug experts and drug warriors in charge of drugs.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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