“Drugs have been systematically scapegoated and demonized in this culture,” I intoned. “The idea that anyone might use narcotics without disastrous consequences is anathema to these idiots.” This produced some laughter, mostly mine.
Interviewing Ortiz, he told me, “I don’t think the public is that foolish. I think our intelligence has been insulted for such a long period of time. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but if we have the technology to knock a man to the moon, why can’t we eradicate the coca leaf? The poppy? We still have the ability to do that. Like Colombia? Millions of millions of casualties annually because of cocaine. If it was oil, the only thing left there would be banana peels.”
To say Ortiz speaks with an animated passion might be understatement. He is burly and mustachioed, with the features of a bushy-browed conquistador, ex-pugilist that he is. His face bears some traces of that boxing career, but his arms, legs, and torso display scars from gunshot wounds, stabbings, and a history of IV drug usage, including several old abscesses. A populist voice in the wilderness, possibly, but he bears bodily evidence that he knows whereof he speaks.
“On the other hand,” he said, “ask any economist worth their salt, and they will tell you that the proceeds of drug money finance virtually everything you can name: the movie industry and the record industry, for example. If we stopped dope right now, the country would not only go into a recession, it would go into a severe depression. That’s how big of a spoke narcotics is in the wheel of our economy.
“San Diego is a major player in narcotics, just like Philadelphia, L.A. — probably more so. The reason this has been obscured is that it is a border town, agriculture, say. We’re too big. To put any shame on that, you’re messing with the powers that be. They do not want this book, for example. Not the powers that be, just people interested in the truth — or at least some perspective.
“One motivating factor that propelled me to continue with the Chronicles was that segment on the Oprah Winfrey show with the writer James Frey [author of A Million Little Pieces, My Friend Leonard, etc.]. I took exception to an embellished story about drug addiction, though I agree with you,” and here he laughs, “the book was written very well.”
I then asked Ortiz what he expected from the book: legalization?
“No. It’s too late. I don’t think it should be illegal, I think it should be decriminalized. It’s too late to be made legal, but it’s not too late to change some things. The vast majority of the people in jail in this country are there are on drug charges. There are an alarming number of people doing serious time for a dime of crack. It’s worse with heroin.
“I know everyone says this, but I hope to raise consciousness, yeah. I suppose the real reason for me to write this book is that it’s my personal redemption.”