Rolling Stone contributing editor Ben Wallace-Wells lives in Philadelphia, where he writes about politics and culture for the magazine. Slate.com just called his feature on how America lost the war on drugs the “smartest drug story of the year.” Read on for a glimpse on how it was put together, and read the entire feature here or in the December 13, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.
Where did the idea for this piece come from?
There were a couple of prompts. There used to be a huge amount of attention paid to what was going on in drug traffic and how it was evolving, and a minute point-by-point journalism that tried to account for all these shifts. And since the middle of the 1990s that has kind of dropped off the map. So part of the importance for this was simply that issues had been reported to Rolling Stone‘s readers and there hasn’t been an update accounting for what had happened since. The other was this creeping suspicion that things had frustratingly not gotten better. There are 335,000 men and women in prison for drug crimes, and that level of incarceration hasn’t made any perceptible dent in the amount of drugs being sold on the street. The mainstream media has let this issue fall off the table. It’s one that still has a lot of great stories in it and it’s ruining a lot of lives.
How long did it take to put this piece together?
I spent about 3 or 4 months reporting it. During that time it was all that I was doing. I probably interviewed close to a hundred people. What you’re trying to do schematically is construct a history. It’s a hugely complex topic and you want to account for how drug trafficking has evolved; for how policy has evolved in Washington; and for the very earnest but sometimes misguided attempts to keep kids from trying drugs. You also want to account for the critically important, real innovations that are taking place: by cops or by treatment professionals who are trying to figure out in a very pragmatic way not how do we stop drug use in this country, but how do we separate out the really damaging drug use, and treat the kind that creates violence.
Did you channel the past season of Entourage for your portrayal of Pablo Escobar? There are images from the piece that mirror the show, and vice versa.
I was definitely aware that this was a sexy character. He was a man that was at once enormously problematic and enormously honest about what he did. I think the reason to start with Escobar was that he had these guys who have been doing this stuff for 25 years. What we wanted to do with that beginning was go back to a moment in time when these huge Colombian cartel leaders are sitting up in their weird mountain retreats and our job is to get them. To illustrate the ways in which drug traffic and drug policy have changed, you have to start at the moment when it seemed like this was winnable and everything was possible — if there was just this one bad guy who had figured it all out…if you could just put your hands around his neck — which we did — then you could end the whole thing.
Was it hard to get people to talk to you?
As crass and politically motivated as some law-and-order drug warriors seem from the outside, these are people who really believe in what they are doing. People were really eager to make their case. Having spent half a trillion dollars on this stuff, what have we actually gotten? I think that opens people up.
Also, these guys have been fighting this for decades; these are their war stories. So it’s not like you have to twist arms to get people to tell you cool stories about the parties the Cali cartel threw in Guadalajara. People sit around and when they get drunk, they tell anyone in sight about it. There are all these amazing stories just waiting to be told.
How has your thinking about the drug war changed since you started the piece?
When I got into it I was conscious that it was hard to write about this subject and not sound either like a ridiculous DEA flack who freaks out about candy flavored meth or something, or on the other hand some crazy, lusty loon screaming at the gates that the whole system’s fucked.
What was fascinating to me was the degree to which how smart and sensibly reported middle ground exists on this stuff. Even if you’re completely skeptical about any kind of decriminalization of anything harder than marijuana, there are still many ways in which drug policy could be made better.
Are you optimistic that we’re moving in the right direction?
I’m optimistic. What we’ve seen in the last couple of years is a kind of growing sensitivity to the fact that what we’ve tried hasn’t worked. That’s something you see from Republicans and Democrats. I don’t know exactly how that’ll play out, but any political feelings that lead to the broadening of the possible ways in which we could deal with drugs in this country are productive.