By Jacob Hornberger
The decision by President Trump and Attorney General Sessions to ramp up the decades-old war on drugs definitely throws down the gauntlet for those who have long advocated an end to this failed, deadly, destructive, corrupt, and immoral war.
I have seen this federal program first hand since I was a teenager back in the 1960s. My father, an attorney, was the U.S. magistrate in my hometown of Laredo, which is located on the U.S.-Mexico border. People caught with drugs at the international bridge would be brought before by father. He related to me that one day the presiding federal judge called him into his chambers to express concern over the large number of “dropsie” cases at the international bridge.
What the judge was referring to was the fact that whenever federal agents would encounter long-haired hippies (who were no doubt anti-Vietnam War) and didn’t find any drugs in their vehicle, they would simply drop some drugs into the car and say, “Well, well. Look what I just found,” knowing that in a federal courtroom people would be more likely to believe a federal official with a crew-cut than a long-haired antiwar hippie radical.
It was my first exposure to how the drug war corrupts everything it touches.
In the 1970s, when the drug war was getting ramped up, there was a federal judge in San Antonio named John Wood Jr. My father, who grew up in San Antonio and who was a good friend of Wood and his wife, spoke highly of him as a lawyer and a person.
The drug war, however, ended up corrupting Wood, and it ultimately cost him his life. Becoming known as “Maximum John,” Wood’s policy was to impose the maximum sentence allowed by law on drug defendants. In other words, no mandatory-minimum sentence laws were necessary when it came to Wood. He imposed the maximum all on his own, believing that he was doing his part to “win” the war on drugs. No compassion. No leniency. Just the maximum possible sentence.
I personally had an experience with Maximum John. After I graduated from law school, I returned home to Laredo to practice law with my father. In the late 1970s, we were hired to represent a man around 20 years old on a federal drug charge. It was a one-count indictment: conspiracy to possess or distribute heroin. Our client never possessed the drug. He never distributed the drug. He just talked to two friends, who were co-defendants in the case, about getting the drug. That’s all he was charged with.
The three men were convicted on that one-count conspiracy indictment. On sentencing day, Wood asked each of the three defendants and their lawyers whether they had anything to say. Each lawyer made a brief statement pointing out that all that these three men had been convicted of with was an oral agreement, which was what a conspiracy entailed.
Judge Wood patiently listened to each lawyer, then asked, “Anything else, gentlemen?” When the three lawyers responded, “No, your honor,” Wood pointed at each defendant and announced in a loud voice, “15 years! 15 years! And 15 years!” Maximum John had meted out the maximum sentence to those three young men.
In the late 1970s, Judge Wood was presiding over the case of Jimmy Chagra, who was a drug kingpin of that time—the type of high-level drug dealer that generates the big newspaper headlines, much as big drug-war kingpins still do today.
By this time, Wood had become so embroiled with “winning” the war on drugs that he had begun to work closely with federal prosecutors to secure drug-war convictions. It was the epitome of corruption for a federal judge, who is supposed to remain independent, fair, and impartial, not take sides with one side or the other.
Jimmy Chagra discovered Woods’ corruption, knew that he could not receive a fair trial in Wood’s court, and that he would receive a maximum sentence. Woods was shot dead outside his home in San Antonio. Chagra received a 30-year sentence on the drug charge but was acquitted on the murder charge. In a later plea bargain, however, he admitted to having hired Charles Harrelson (the father of the actor Woody Harrelson) to assassinate Wood.
Did all this corruption and mayhem end up “winning” the war on drugs? If you believe that, then you’re ingesting something unlawful. The drug war is nothing more than a decades-long, ongoing deadly, destructive, and corrupt racket, one that Trump and Sessions are now set to ramp up and “win.”
Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.