Did Sean Penn’s critics read the article they assailed?

Actor and writer Sean Penn pulled off the seemingly impossible, landing a meeting with one of the most hunted men in the western world. Later after Penn’s article about Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was published in left of center Rolling Stone, critics on right and left assailed Penn. How could he? How could he meet with and place in the limelight a man who has, in the process of building a drug empire, killed so many, not just with bullets but by exporting drugs?

Penn’s article runs thousands of words. After seeing him on ’60 Minutes’ Sunday, I decided to read it. Penn isn’t the standard Tinseltown cutout. No one can dispute his remarkable talent in acting. No one can also dispute he can come up with some outrageous statements. But Penn tends to put his money and his body where his mouth is. So I thought it worth my time to read an article that, considering logistics, most of us wouldn’t have the courage to research in person.

I’ve come to the conclusion that many critics on both right and left didn’t read the article. 

Penn said his article failed. Perhaps it did. But he touched on an issue few political candidates have discussed, except for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). Christie has declared he will prosecute states where cannabis laws have been relaxed. I believe that is a deal killer for anyone who believes in states’ rights conferred by limits on federal powers in the US Constitution. Cannabis is an herb, and it is the only herb I know of on federal Schedule 1, right up there with Meth.

Your neighbor decides to manufacture Meth, he can blow you up. Conversely, if he decides to stick a couple marijuana plants in his backyard, no one is harmed. Numerous herbs have medicinal properties, and some can actually do more damage than cannabis. Technology continues to enable humans to come up with substances that alter the mind. Where exactly do we draw the line at what we criminalize, or ultimately, do we just criminalize everything?

Penn attempted in his article to draw attention to the circle of complicity regarding drug use.

Currently the government and society view drug users as criminals. When it comes to drugs that create physical dependency like heroin, those users are also viewed as criminals. Those of us who have witnessed someone addicted to legal substances know the damage that can do to the user, family, and community. Why don’t we view the drug addict in the same manner we view an alcoholic or a tobacco smoker?  Instead of pouring billions into law enforcement and the justice system, might we at least rethink the war on drugs?

Think for a moment how many lives may have been saved or improved by public education on alcohol and cigarettes. Those corporate interests are regulated and held accountable. Not so for those who sell cannabis and drugs. For cartels, there’s no environmental oversight. Paltry, if any, IRS targeting. No Food and Drug Adminstration monitoring. No payroll taxes or penalties for not providing health insurance. And like that. You get the idea.

I can hear critics reading that and groaning. But there is no disputing the war on drugs has not only failed, it has actually resulted in enriching cartels who now have branched into human trafficking and God knows what else.

Not every drug should be legalized. But I see the practicality in states where cannabis has been decriminalized and some of the millions going into a black hole are now formally made part of the economy. Drug money has always been part of economies. Major banks have been fined for laundering drug money. Politicians’ sons and staffers have been popped for pot, and it’s likely none have done prison time. The last three presidents of the United States, Democrats and Republican, have admitted doing drugs. None of them have done prison time.

Currently in our nation’s capital where the political class is concentrated, you can grow and smoke pot in your own home. Talk about hypocrisy.

Penn’s article didn’t really fail. What might have strengthened it? A solid edit. He buried his lede. I would’ve opened the article with the first sentence in paragraph four:

“They call him El Chapo. Or ‘Shorty.’”

That’s the first bite of real meat. I’d have removed some of the first person rambling as well. While it was interesting to see the complex process for arranging Penn’s meetup, some of the confessionals got a little tedious.

There’s a stream of consciousness in Penn’s style. I’d have condensed some of that for the Web. As a writer who spent many years working in print, I often get frustrated with the attention span of  Web readers, but it is what it is. I try to write short. I often fail, but like Penn, with much of the writing I do nowadays I make not a dime. My website receives a tiny amount of reader donations. I do occasional freelance work. The only reason I do this every day is in hopes of making a difference, a positive one.

Penn’s article is worth reading. He managed to do what no other journalist has done—and yes, I consider him a journalist because this isn’t the first time he’s written and he has talent with the written word. He landed a meeting with one of the world’s most wanted men, a man two governments were attempting to capture.

Guzman has since been recaptured. Whether he will be extradited to the US is anyone’s guess. Whether Mexico will be able to keep him incarcerated is also anyone’s guess.

Penn didn’t glorify the drug kingpin. Instead he attempted to spark a debate that is long overdue but no presidential candidate is raising.

Penn wrote about Guzman as a boy, how he’d draw pesos because his family was poor. Penn wrote:

“Still, today, there are little boys in Sinaloa who draw play-money pesos, whose fathers and grandfathers before them harvested the only product they’d ever known to morph those play pesos into real dollars. They wonder at our outrage as we, our children, friends, neighbors, bosses, banks, brothers and sisters finance the whole damn thing. Without a paradigm shift, understanding the economics and illness of addiction, parents in Mexico and the U.S. will increasingly risk replacing that standard parting question to their teens off for a social evening – from ‘Where are you going tonight?’ to ‘Where are you dying tonight?’”

In the US we regulate everything from hair spray to soap. Yet we have products coming into this country and being widely used that are not regulated or taxed. Some substances should not be legal, of that I have no doubt. But the great drug war that began with cannabis, a substance once taxed in the US and legal until the 1970s, helped fan the power of the cartels who are financed by the societies they produce in and sell to.

For those of us familiar with the prohibition on alcohol in the US, the lives lost and money expended on that war, the war on drugs is equally counterproductive.

Rethinking strategy, considering broadening research and options for treatment, and going after the substances that warrant criminalization—those are the discussions we should be having. We aren’t.

We can’t even bring ourselves to admit our own government nurtures cartels, courtesy of the open borders and visa or migration policies four US presidents from both political parties have refused to address in a practical manner. Why? Pure profits and to some degree, political power.

Conservative icon Bill Buckley long ago raised the subject of the war on drugs, and he argued for legalization of cannabis. Decades later, we are still doing the same thing and achieving worse results than we were then. Billions and billions of dollars are going into an abyss.

We should be talking about this, and in that regard, in some quarters, for those who actually read what he wrote, Penn’s article did not fail.

Featured image: El Chapo, Joaquin Guzman, as shown on the US Drug Enforcement Administration website.

(Commentary by Kay B. Day/Jan. 18, 2016)

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About Kay Day

Kay B. Day is a freelance writer who has published in national and international magazines and websites. The author of 3 books, her work is anthologized in textbooks and collections. She has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. Day is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Authors Guild.
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