Staff Columnist

The drug war is a real war, and Iowa's death row inmate was fighting in it

If our goal is to prevent this from happening again, we have to take a sober look at what happened before Dustin Honken's crimes.

Dustin Lee Honken is led by federal marshals to a waiting car after the second day of jury selection in federal court We
Dustin Lee Honken is led by federal marshals to a waiting car after the second day of jury selection in federal court Wednesday evening, Aug. 18, 2004, in Sioux City. (AP Photo/Sioux City Journal,Tim Hynds)
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One of Iowa’s most notorious murderers and meth dealers is scheduled to die this week.

While Iowa outlawed capital punishment more than 50 years ago, the federal government is pressing forward with executions of four federal inmates, part of the Trump administration’s tough-on-crime posture. The U.S. Supreme Court decided against the convicts’ legal challenge last month, allowing the first executions since 2003 to proceed.

One of them — Dustin Honken, called an “Iowa drug kingpin” by the media and police — was convicted in federal court in the 1993 killings of five people in Northern Iowa, including two children.

When Honken dies, there will be one fewer criminal in the world. But if the goal of our justice system is to prevent another criminal from taking other innocent lives, we have to take a sober look at the conditions precipitating his crimes.

Honken did not just go out killing indiscriminately. After he was first charged with federal drug crimes, he targeted two former drug trade associates who became government informants, along with one of their girlfriends and her two children.

In other words, Honken killed to protect his illegal business. The killings he committed are despicable and wholly inexcusable, so this is not an excuse, but it is one explanation.

The drug war is an actual war, and Honken was fighting in it.

If the drug war were effective at stifling the drug trade, maybe we could calculate a macabre yet acceptable trade-off — a little more violent crime in exchange for less drug-related harm. But that’s not how it works in practice — the prevailing prohibition and enforcement regime has proved impotent at anything besides wrecking people’s lives.

Over the past 20 years, Iowa officials have waged a war against methamphetamine, led with concerted enforcement efforts by local, state and federal authorities, and new laws restricting access to meth manufacturing ingredients. We appear to be worse off for their efforts.

Meth: Iowa’s on it, too, more than ever before

Iowa’s annual report on drug control last year showed indicators of methamphetamine harm and trafficking are rising in the state — deaths from meth and other psychostimulants, the portion of patients entering treatment who list meth as their primary substance, the number of people imprisoned for meth-related charges and the volume of meth seized by authorities.

A key figure is the price of methamphetamine — the average price per gram dropped about 20 percent between 2010 and 2018, while the average purity grew by 20 percent, according to the Iowa Counterdrug Task Force. That suggests more potent methamphetamine is more easily available than ever before. It’s clear Iowa is losing the war on meth.

Sometimes drugs make people more violent, but that effect is overstated. And, as we have seen, prohibition has a poor record of mitigating risky drug use anyway. The other cause of drug-related violence — and the one we can meaningfully address through public policy — is prohibition itself.

Maybe you have noticed that bootleggers of the U.S. alcohol prohibition era and marijuana smugglers this century have used violence to protect their supplies. But modern beer distributors and medical marijuana dispensaries don’t do that. The difference is the legality.

It’s a radical idea, but if people with methamphetamine use disorder had easy access to safe and legal substances, maybe people like Honken would be put out of business peacefully. Maybe if we ended the federalized and militarized response to drugs, people like that would have less reason to use lethal force.

Honken does not have many sympathizers. Iowa Catholic bishops are calling on President Donald Trump to commute Honken’s execution sentence, but there is no mass outpouring to save his life. The killings are too grisly and the facts are too solid to elicit that kind of response.

But this isn’t about Iowa’s “meth kingpin.” It’s about his five victims, and countless others who have been killed or had their lives torn apart, chalked up to collateral damage in the war on drugs.

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Honken will pay for his crimes. But who pays for the system that helped create this unthinkable tragedy? That’s on us.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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