Don Winslow Artfully Demolishes the War on Drugs

The acclaimed novelist agrees that the nation has a serious drug epidemic, but argues—in person and in his fiction—that reviving the old ‘War on Drugs’ is a dumb mistake.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Do not let author Don Winslow get started on Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “Beauregard,” Winslow practically sneers, referring to the AG by his very Confederate-sounding middle name, “wants to take us back to the good old days, when we were throwing two million people into prison. He thinks the war on drugs was a good idea, and that we were winning. But drugs are more plentiful, powerful, and cheaper than ever before. If that’s victory, I would hate to see defeat.”

Winslow is, of course, referring to Sessions’ recent order that all federal prosecutors pursue the strictest possible sentences, including for non-violent drug offenders. Winslow sees this as a return to a failed policy of mass incarceration, and he’s one writer who knows what he’s talking about. The critically acclaimed author’s most famous works—The Power of the Dog, Savages, and The Cartel—are centered on drugs and drug policy. His new novel, The Force, is also drug-centered, examining corruption in the New York Police Department and featuring a crooked cop named Denny Malone who, along with his partners, steals millions of dollars’ worth of heroin after a major bust. Think of it as a cross between a hard-core New York tale by Richard Price and the classic 1981 Sidney Lumet film Prince of the City.

It’s that readable, and that bleak.

“I’ve always wanted to write a New York cop book,” says Winslow, 63, who was born in the city and raised in Rhode Island but whose best known books are set in California (where he now lives) and Mexico. “Back when I was living in New York”—where he worked for a chain of movie theaters, and as a private investigator—“I would see classic crime films like Serpico, Prince of the City, and The French Connection, and they’re part of the reason I became a crime writer. So after I finished The Cartel [set mostly in Mexico, and soon to be filmed by Ridley Scott], I wanted to get back to New York.”

The Force is so awash in corruption, from the lowest beat cop to the mayor’s office, that it seems hyper-unreal. But Winslow insists what he’s writing about is the real deal, that “every 20 years or so there is a major corruption scandal in the NYPD.” He points to a recent bribes-to-obtain-gun-licenses probe involving crooked cops and prosecutors, but adds that “it’s not just the NYPD, it’s Chicago, the LAPD, Baltimore. One of the points I was trying to make in the book, we always talk about cops being corrupt, but what about lawyers, judges, the mayor’s office? It’s not worse in New York, it’s just larger—everything is larger in New York.”

Winslow is no hard-core cop hater. In fact, researching and writing The Force, which took several years, helped him sympathize with the extremely tough job the police have to do, and the harsh conditions they have to deal with.

“The thing that surprised me a little bit about cops,” he says, “is how deeply they feel what they do. You tend to think they get jaded, and they do, and they come across as stoic, but when you talk to them about cases and stories, the work has an impact on them. When you watch TV shows, you see them joking about victims—and that happens—but when they talk about certain victims and crimes they have more empathy than you would be led to believe. I talked to veteran cops who sat there with tears streaming down their faces talking about their cases.”

In fact, the cops in The Force, no matter how corrupt, believe they are fighting the good fight, taking down drug dealers, gangbangers, and murderers by any means necessary. Malone, who considers himself “the king of Manhattan North,” heads an elite squad of detectives given unrestricted authority to rid their area of human scum. The parallels with the Daniel Ciello character (played by Treat Williams) in Prince of the City are unmistakable, including the ultimate fall from grace—pressed by the Feds, both men wind up informing on their partners.

Winslow says that if nothing else, his book shows “how complicated a cop’s life can be, how complicated issues of right and wrong can be. This guy Malone gets himself into a trap where he has no good choices. Who do you betray?”

But back to Jeff Sessions and Winslow’s other bête noire, The Wall. Winslow has long argued that the only way to break the cartels is to legalize all drugs, and has even written about it for The Daily Beast. He has said the drug war is “unwinnable,” that there is “no end in sight.” And the Trump administration’s attempts to build a barrier across our southern border, accompanied by a hardline prosecutorial stance, have not changed his mind.

“Trump and these guys claim to be businessmen,” he says, “but they don’t understand economics. Let’s assume you could build a wall, and it could be a deterrent, but it does not affect demand. Anything you do to make the supply more difficult, raises the supplies and raises the profits. That’s just basic high school economics.”

Winslow believes that whatever gets built—“There will be something and they will call it a wall,” he says—is a fantasy. Certain parts of the terrain make wall building impractical; some of the wall would have to pass through privately owned lands, which invites endless lawsuits; and part of the wall would have to pass through territory owned on both sides of the border by the Tohono O’odham tribe, creating even more legal issues.

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Besides, says Winslow, any wall would actually have huge gates, and “they are called San Diego, El Paso, and Laredo. Most of the drugs come in by trucks, and everyone knows this,” but it would be impossible to minutely inspect every truck crossing the border—over 2 million annually in Laredo alone.

So what’s the end game? “You have to wait it out,” says Winslow. “Towards the end of the Obama administration, they started to get realistic about drug and prison policies. Now we are going back to the old days, but I think there are people who are rational on this topic. It’s an issue where right and left meet, but it’s a generational thing also. I think it’s a matter of waiting for some people to become extinct. Because they never change.”