A Brief History of the Drug Cartels

By Christopher Zoukis

Generally, middle-class and upper-class whites in America perceived marijuana use as a trivial matter.  Most people didn’t use marijuana.  Their perception changed drastically in 1948.  Hollywood actors and actresses were habitual users of marijuana.  Mexican marijuana was prevalent in Hollywood and easily obtainable.  Movie star Robert Mitchum was arrested, along with his girlfriend, Lila Leeds, for using marijuana.  Mitchum was sentenced to fifty days in jail, while Lila Leeds was sentenced to sixty days in jail.  Lila Leeds / Image courtesy www.cinefania.com

Subsequent to arrest, her budding career destroyed by connection to marijuana, Lila Leeds decided to abandon the glamor of Hollywood.  She later became a heroin addict.  Mitchum’s career, on the other hand, profited nicely from his arrest.  His unrepentant attitude was just the ticket.  It gave him a bad-boy image that Hollywood loved.  His career skyrocketed.  Mitchum was cool.  Mitchum’s cool-factor and the publicity surrounding his arrest brought marijuana to the attention of the general public.  Marijuana use, just like Robert Mitchum, soared in popularity.  Everyone wanted to try it.

After medical researchers declared marijuana non-addictive, conservative politicians were stymied, but only for a moment.  Director Anslinger came up with a unique solution to the problem, declaring marijuana to be a “gateway drug.”  In other words, use of marijuana led to use of addictive drugs such as heroin and cocaine.  Conservative politicians jumped on the bandwagon.  They passed the Boggs Act in 1952.  The Boggs Act made the sale and possession of marijuana a felony that carried stringent mandatory sentencing.  Four years later, in 1956, the Narcotics Control Act enacted even more rigid penalties for the sale and possession of marijuana. 

During the 1960s, marijuana was associated with students on college campuses, along with hippies and flower children.  Middle-class white Americans discovered ‘getting high.’  Then in 1971, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse published a report recommending that marijuana be legalized.  President Richard Nixon thought the Commission was wrong.  Nixon declared illicit drugs a subtle evil and announced that the government of the United States was embarking on a “War on Drugs.”  Nixon spent billions of taxpayers’ dollars attempting to seal the borders of the United States.  Halting the flow of drugs into the U.S. was Nixon’s answer to the problem.  Image courtesy en.wikipedia.org

It didn’t work.  In fact, according to the RAND Corporation, drugs continued to flow into the U.S. unabated.  The RAND Corporation concluded that Nixon’s War on Drugs actually benefitted drug traffickers by driving prices up.  The drug traffickers were making bank.  

Most of the marijuana entering the U.S. and Canada came from Mexico, whereas most of the cocaine entering the U.S. came from Cuba, Chile and Colombia.  During the early 1980s, Medellin gangsters monopolized the smuggling of cocaine.  It was at this time that the Medellin gangsters began to be called the Medellin Cartel.  The designation implied that drug traffickers had attained a new almost majestic status, that of a kingdom.  Essentially, the cocaine cartels were so powerful and influential that they rivaled legitimate national governments.  The cartels were nations within nations. 

Law enforcement officials and the media quickly adopted the term ‘cartel.’  The media embraced the term because it implied a vast conspiracy, which helped them peddle their news reports.  Government prosecutors championed the term because it proved useful in prosecuting gangsters, opening the door to RICO laws.  The cartel terminology implied organization and conspiracy, and carried the flavor of menace.