Richard Valdemar believes the central character of his medical-marijuana story would be executed by a Mexican drug cartel if he was named, so he refers to him as "Winnie."
As Valdemar relates in newly released cable-and-Internet-show video and recent article in a police magazine, Winnie is the son of two Northern California "hippies" who made a living in the last few decades by growing high-quality weed. Winnie's an expert grower himself, and he succumbed to temptation a while back to make "real money" by hooking up with a cartel associate he knew through a childhood friend.
The relationship wasn't a good idea, as you can imagine. Winnie was framed by the friend for stealing 20 plants and, fearing for his life, he decided to flee the family farm, says Valdemar, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy who learned of Winnie's tale through his old police contacts. But Winnie decided to actually steal 20 plants before he left -- and then he got pulled over and busted by police.
Now, Winnie's "on the run," Valdemar tells New Times, terrified that if he goes to prison, or even if he doesn't, he'll be assassinated by the cartel.
It's a fascinating story and all true, according to Valdemar.
But is this an example of why marijuana should never be legalized, as Valdemar says its is, or just the opposite?
We'll certainly go with the latter.
Valdemar's article seems to prove our thesis with this one line: "What could he do, call the police?"
He's referring to a farmer working for Winnie and the cartel member who had no recourse after getting stiffed on his promised pay, but the line also applies to Winnie.
Clearly, there would be no issue with calling the police if marijuana were legal. And Winnie probably would never have hooked up with a cartel member in the first place.
Yet to Valdemar, who fled what he calls the "People's Republic" of California and now lives in Bullhead City, Winnie's story shows that medical marijuana, which has been legal in California since 1996, is empowering the cartels. As a national speaker, he opposed Arizona's Medical Marijuana Act, which was narrowly approved by voters last November.
In a claim touted by the cable show, Full Disclosure, (and to much derision by Pete Guither at Drug War Rant, he argues that legalizing pot entirely would make the cartels grow even stronger.
From Guither's rant:
So... he's saying that ending marijuana prohibition will be like the problems of having alcohol prohibition? Surely, they must have gotten that wrong.
Well, they did. Kind of.
It appears that Sgt.
VoldemortValdemar is actually saying that legalizing marijuana will be like the rise of Al Capone after the repeal of alcohol prohibition.
Valdemar in the video, actually claims that ending alcohol prohibition didn't hurt Capone at all, and that ending marijuana prohibition will just mean a bigger industry for the cartels to control.
We chatted with Valdemar for a while yesterday and found him to be personable and willing to consider ideas other than his own. (That is, he didn't hang up on us when we started arguing with him.)
But his views on what marijuana legalization would do to the cartels -- which are similar to the misguided ideas of other prohibitionists we've interviewed ), simply make no sense.
As much as 60 percent of Mexican cartel profits come from marijuana, say online sources like this 2009 Washington Post article.
It seems reasonable to assume legalizing marijuana nationwide would be a major blow to the cartels.
Valdemar argues that "legalizing beer did not stop Al Capone and organized crime," and therefore legalizing marijuana won't stop the cartels, either.
But Valdemar's no history major or alcohol-prohibition expert. He talks off-the-cuff about how lifting prohibition may have gotten gangsters "out of the fight over beer, but by that time, they had got their claws on the distribution of alcohol."
When was that? "In the 1930s," he says.
Alcohol prohibition in the United States ran from 1920 to December of 1933.
He claims that it took years for the alcohol industry to rid itself of organized crime's influence. The same thing would probably happen with marijuana if it were legalized, he says, but it would take even longer.
Even assuming he's right, wouldn't it be great if gangsters were booted out of the pot business at some point?
Valdemar won't take the bait. Legalization "is not a good thing for the health and welfare of the country ... it's sinking to a new, low level."
Besides, he adds, "once dope is legalized, people are going to start using more of different types of drugs."
He compares the situation to what he says goes on in prisons: Bulky marijuana is tougher to smuggle in, so more inmates who might otherwise just use pot get addicted to heroin.
In these types of debates, we always enjoy pointing out that in Arizona, it's perfectly legal to walk into a store and buy 20 AK-47s and a few thousand rounds of ammo, claiming they're for "personal use," but one marijuana seed is a felony.
"That's kind of odd, isn't it?" Valdemar says, a tone of wonder in his voice.
Even odder: The racism behind the story of why marijuana is illegal.
As a 2009 NPR article points out, nationwide marijuana legalization remains a "pipe dream" for now, despite the growth of the medical-marijuana industry. Even if next year's ballot proposition to legalize pot in California succeeds, organized crime will continue to be entrenched in the marijuana biz because of its wider illegality.
Tough luck, Winnie.
UPDATE: An hour or so after we published this one, we received a call back from Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron, who's spoken often on the evils of marijuana prohibition.
Miron, though, surprised us by saying he didn't think legalization would impact the drug cartels severely. But that's because he doesn't believe that pot really makes up half of the cartels' profits. He thinks that figure's actually much lower, in part because marijuana is "much closer to being a commodity" at this point than other drugs or illegal activity that might have a higher mark-up.
As a tactic to damage the cartels, legalizing weed would provide a "benefit, but not a huge benefit," Miron says.
The greater good of legalizing pot would be in "not locking up tons of people for marijuana charges" and lessening the drain of resources that prohibition puts on law enforcement. Still, he wouldn't expect a "dramatic reduction in the prison population."
As usual, the truth is always more complex than the rhetoric.