Terry Nelson’s story is a vivid example of how a true-blue “drug warrior” could lose faith in governmental policy. Although he was a very effective Border Patrol and Customs agent—one year he busted 118,000 pounds of marijuana—eventually Nelson realized that not only was the U.S. not winning the drug war, but also that the policy itself was wasteful and harmful to the country. Nelson attempted to reform the government agencies he worked for, but found that to be an impossible mission. Since his retirement, Nelson has dedicated his efforts to raising consciousness about the futility and counterproductive effects of the war on drugs.
As an ancestral Texan steeped in the culture and traditions of the Southwest, as well as a dyed-in–the-wool Republican, Nelson could hardly be branded unpatriotic. Yet through painful experience, he came to the conclusion that the war on drugs needed to be replaced with a more realistic, more practical, and more effective approach to the perennial issues of drug use, abuse, and trafficking. He is not alone in this regard. In fact, many of the people I interviewed in U.S. law enforcement expressed skepticism about the reality of the nation’s drug policies. Like many police officers, these drug agents harbor a “contradictory consciousness,” on the one hand believing in their mandate as agents of the state, and on the other mistrusting and questioning the very policies they carry out daily.
Nelson should be commended for his courage in laying on the table the problematic nature of the war on drugs and in calling for a new, more sensible strategy. His account also provides a rich inside look at the cultures of border drug trafficking and law enforcement.