Of all the weekends for Colt DeMorris to be pulled over by the cops for a broken tail-light, it had to be the one before 4/20.
That day is the unofficial annual holiday for marijuana enthusiasts, and DeMorris is the executive director of the El Paso chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). He was headed home at 2.30am on Saturday from 420 Fest, a music event sponsored by his group. The smell was unmistakable.
What happened next was predictable: the arrest, the 14-hour booking process, the court date. What is more surprising is that amid the usual torrent of anti-abortion, pro-gun, anti-equality measures floated in this year’s session of the Texas legislature, there were 11 progressive marijuana-related bills, and one, legalizing marijuana extracts for severe epilepsy, even became law. It is not only liberal Austin blazing the reform trail in blood-red Texas, but also El Paso – the quiet west Texas border town across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican city so ravaged by drug cartel violence that until recently it was the murder capital of the world.
A state representative from El Paso, Marisa Marquez, introduced a medical marijuana bill. Another El Paso Democrat, Joe Moody, proposed a bill to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of pot.
Beto O’Rourke , a Democratic US congressman from El Paso, co-wrote a 2011 book calling for drug policy reform and won election in 2012 with a pro-marijuana legalisation stance. The incumbent he ousted in the primary, Silvestre Reyes , was the former head of Border Patrol in El Paso who in 1993 introduced the controversial Operation Hold the Line, which saturated the border with agents to create a human blockade.
Law enforcement officers still swarm El Paso’s placid downtown and its sun-baked desert surroundings. Fort Bliss, the second-largest US army installation, is a short drive away. The city of 700,000 has repeatedly been named the safest of its size in the US, despite its proximity to Juárez, population 1.3 million, where 424 homicides in 2014 was considered excellent progress.
But the drugs keep coming. Border Patrol seized 44,000lbs of marijuana in the El Paso area in the last fiscal year.
On one Saturday last month, the El Paso Times reported, officers found 529lbs of marijuana in the gas tank and a tire of a 1995 Chevrolet Blazer, in hidden compartments of a Dodge Ram and in the side panels of a Honda Ridgeline.
Yet many El Pasoans would like to see marijuana legalised, or at least decriminalised – not so much despite the cartel traffic that ghosts through their city, but because of it. Or more precisely, because they believe the decades-long US “war on drugs” has militarised the border and put ordinary people under constant surveillance, disrupting lives and fracturing communities without achieving results that justify the emotional, cultural and economic costs.
An El Paso company is selling Donald Trump piñatas after he depicted Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists. The Republican presidential hopeful’sdescription of Mexico is typical of hardline immigration rhetoric that sees Mexico as a troublesome “other”. It is not an attitude that would gain Trump many votes in El Paso, four-fifths Hispanic and in a symbiotic relationship with Juárez.
“We need to change the discourse about Mexico. Americans need to get beyond saying they like Mexican food and accept that these countries are joined at the hip,” says Howard Campbell, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Mexico is a permanent part of American culture. Let’s embrace it as part of the country, not some kind of add-on.”