U.S. Drug Laws Confound Brad Pitt and Encourage Torture Abroad

And it might be a little too late to ‘just say no.’

The costly and destructive War on Drugs has created a powerful domestic and international spy organization second in reach only to the CIA, funneled great masses of poor Americans into prisons, and triggered tens of thousands of deaths in Mexico alone. Winning? (Photo: Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Oct 15, 2012· 3 MIN READ
is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared Atlantic, Back Stage, The Christian Science Monitor and The Hill.

With Washington’s War on Drugs being linked to torture abroad and reinforcing poverty at home, actor Brad Pitt feels the prison-packing policy of mandatory-minimum sentences and militarized global interdiction “just doesn’t make sense.”

Pitt was speaking to TheWrap in his capacity as executive producer to the newly released documentary The House I Live In. At a recent screening in Los Angeles of director Eugene Jarecki’s scathing examination of the U.S. drug policy’s fallout, Pitt said the fact the United States has the largest prisoner population in the world speaks volumes about the effectiveness of the War on Drugs.

MORE: Nemesis List: Torture for Good

“You can’t argue it economically anymore. It just doesn’t make sense to carry on this way,” Pitt told TheWrap. “When you see the repercussions from this policy, and the cost on people trying to get ahead, you’ve gotta start asking questions. I think it’s time. I think it’s come to a head, and we’ve got to look at our choices.”

Pitt was addressing the negative consequences incarcerating drug offenders for long periods has had on American communities and economies.

But U.S. drug policy is having an even more grim impact in Mexico, where the use of torture by government authorities against drug suspects is on the rise, according to a new report by Amnesty International.

In the past five years, as President Felipe Calderón’s government waged war against the drug cartels, reports of torture have tripled.

“I do think the question really begins with us. This is all driven by the billions and billions of dollars we spend to bring these drugs to the United States.”

In 2011, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission received 1,669 complaints of torture and ill-treatment in which federal public officials were involved, compared to 564 in 2008. At the same time, the Merida Initiative, a security-cooperation agreement between the United States and Mexico signed into law in 2008, has provided $1.9 billion in U.S. assistance (think Black Hawk helicopters) to the Mexican government to arm its war against the cartels.

While some of that aid now goes toward reforming Mexico’s weak legal system, the focus remains a militarized fight against drugs. And the current political environment leaves little maneuverability for U.S. lawmakers to change that, even if they wanted to.

Without a shift in U.S. policy on the horizon, Larry Siems, director of PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write and International Programs, believes that it’s up to individuals to address consumption.

“It’s important for all Americans to recognize our relationship to what are now illegal drugs, which are funding mayhem and misery in other parts of the world, including Mexico,” Siems tells TakePart.

“I do think the question really begins with us. This is all driven by the billions and billions of dollars we spend to bring these drugs to the United States.”

It would be naive to suggest that sole responsibility for the abhorrent level of violence in Mexico rests with the recreational cocaine or marijuana user, agrees Siems, who is the author of the forthcoming book The Torture Report, an analysis of torture in the post-9-11 years. “A government has the responsibility to protect the lives of its own citizens. [But] it’s equally naive to say that any amount of arrests or busts in Mexico will stop the violence without addressing the voracious appetite” in the United States.

David Luban, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center who has written extensively about U.S. torture policy, says there’s a link between Mexico’s human rights abuses resulting from the drug war and America’s War on Terror.

President Obama banned the use of the Bush Administration’s “enhanced” interrogation techniques on his first day in office in 2009, but failed to prosecute a single official for torture. Attorney General Eric Holder had special prosecutor John Durham investigate cases of abuse against 101 detainees in U.S. custody. This summer, the last of the cases was closed without any charges being brought.

“The lack of accountability is because it would have been so politically dangerous” to bring an official to trial, Luban tells TakePart. “It would have been very hard to say, ‘We’re going to do accountability, but we’re not going to do accountability for President Bush, Vice President Cheney, [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice—who’ve [all] signed off on this.’ ”

It wouldn’t just be politically dangerous to investigate the officials who condoned the use of torture—it would be downright unpopular. A recent survey found that Americans’ support for using torture against prisoners to fight terrorism has risen 14 points since 2007 to 41 percent.

“It gets normalized,” Luban says. “We get used to thinking it’s okay.”

If American officials would question their Mexican counterparts over the use of torture, “we would sound like complete hypocrites,” Luban says. “There’s no question that our moral standing has really weakened on this issue.”

Is it more likely that American demand for illegal drugs will end? Or that illegal drugs will be decriminalized in the U.S.? Hash it out in COMMENTS.