Guest Post: Travis McGee & the War on Drugs

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By Kevin Comer

I said I didn’t mind, so she got a saved butt out of a little box in the nightstand drawer, good for five deep drags, well spaced, then pressed it out and came back down to me with that sad, sweet, oriental tang on her breath.

— Billie Jean Bailey tokes up in The Empty Copper Sea (1978)

Travis McGee is no prude when it comes to recreational drug use. This is probably to be expected. It’s likely you couldn’t be berthed downwind of the Alabama Tiger’s permanent floating house party aboard the ‘Bama Gal without often being treated to the sweet scent of Mary Jane in the ‘60s and ‘70s. McGee tells us exactly where he stands in regard to marijuana in The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974) when Meyer asks him outright: “… Do you disapprove of a person using the weed?”

“Me? I think people should do whatever they want to do, provided they go to the trouble of informing themselves first of any possible problems. Once they know, then they can solve their own risk-reward ratios. Suppose somebody proved it does some kind of permanent damage. Okay. So the user has to figure it out if there is any point in his remaining in optimum condition for a minimum kind of existence. For me, it was relaxing, in a way, the couple of times I’ve had enough to feel it. But it gave me the giggles, warped my time sense, and made things too bright and hard-edged. Also it bent dimensions somehow. Buildings leaned just a little bit the wrong way. Rooms were not perfectly oblong any more. It’s a kind of sensual relaxation, but it gave me the uneasy feeling somebody could come up behind me and kill me and I would die distantly amused instead of scared witless.”

McGee seems to have suffered from the paranoia often experienced by the occasional pot smoker. His drug of choice will remain expensive imported gin, which presumably did not effect temporal or spacial perception, nor lead to fits of giggling. Nonetheless, he takes his typical libertarian stance with regard to behavior and responsibility.

Travis McGee was much more concerned about the unintended consequences of society’s punitive response to the recreational use of drugs other than alcohol. We first become aware of these concerns in Dress Her in Indigo (1969). Seated comfortably in first class on a flight bound for Mexico City, Travis studies the dossiers prepared by T. Harlen Bowie’s investigators for each of Bix Bowie’s companions on her ill-fated trip to Mexico and discovers one of them had narrowly escaped conviction for marijuana possession due to a break in the chain of evidence. Travis reflects on the actions of the judge:

And that, of course , is the tragic flaw in the narcotics laws— that possession of marijuana is a felony. Regardless of whether it is as harmless as some believe, or as evil and vicious as others believe, savage and uncompromising law is bad law, and the good and humane judge will jump at any technicality that will keep him from imposing a penalty so barbaric and so cruel. The self-righteous pillars of church and society demand that “the drug traffic be stamped out” and think that making possession a felony will do the trick. Their ignorance of the roots of the drug traffic is as extensive as their ignorance of the law.

Let’s say a kid in Florida, a college kid eighteen years old, is picked up with a couple of joints on him. He is convicted of possession, which is an automatic felony, and given a suspended sentence. What has he lost? The judge who imposes sentence knows the kid has lost the right to vote, the right right to own a gun, the right to run for public office. He can never become a doctor, dentist, C.P.A., engineer, lawyer, architect, realtor, osteopath, physical therapist, private detective, pharmacist, school teacher, barber, funeral director, masseur, or stock broker. He can never get any job where he has to be bonded or licensed. He can’t work for the city, county, or federal governments . He can’t get into West Point, Annapolis, or the Air Force Academy. He can enlist in the military, but will be denied his choice of service, and probably be assigned to a labor battalion.

It is too rough. It slams too many doors. It effectively destroys the kid’s life. It is too harsh a penalty for a little faddist experimentation. The judge knows it. So he looks for any out, and then nothing at all happens to the kid. Too many times harsh law ends up being, in effect, no law at all. All automatic felony laws are, without exception, bad law, from the Sullivan Act in New York State, to the hit and run in California . They destroy the wisdom and discretion of the Court, and defeat the purposes they are meant to serve.

Although McGee refers to faddish experimentation, the dark side of drug use figures prominently in the plot of Indigo. He and Meyer discover a wide swath of destruction and degradation involving heroin, pharmaceuticals, and cannabis in Mexico. This is often the case in the series. In Copper, PCP is destroying lives in Timber Bay. In The Lonely Silver Rain (1985), brash undercover DEA agent Scott Browder is motivated by a teenage daughter in a vegetative state from an overdose. A reader would not come away convinced JDM thought drug use benign.

As the market for recreational drugs exploded, Florida became a major conduit for product from Latin America and the Caribbean. Initially, many of those involved in the drug trade were amateurs attracted by the chance to make a quick buck. There was an air of romance not even T. McGee is entirely immune to: In Lemon, he recalls his thinking when acquaintance Boo Brodey tried recruiting him into the trade:

…If you make it with grass, you find out that hash and coke are more portable and profitable. You kid yourself into the next step, and by the time they pick you up, your picture in the paper looks like some kind of degenerate, fangs and all. And all you can say is, gee, the other guys were doing it too.

If I were really going to do it, I would refit the Muñequita for long-range work. Tune her for lowest gas consumption and put in bigger tanks. She’s already braced to bang through seas most runabouts can’t handle. Then I would …

Whoa, McGee. There is larceny in every heart, and you have more than your share. So forget how far it is across the Yucatan Straits, leaving from Key West.

However as the drug trade matures, it becomes a $70B a year business controlled by ruthless organized crime rings. In Silver—published 30 years ago—Travis runs afoul of these forces when his discovery of the bodies of three young drug runners on a stolen yacht results in his being marked for death. In his effort to escape the crosshairs, McGee unleashes a violent gang war. As the bodies pile up, he’s following the action in the newspapers when Meyer brings a NYT op-ed written by a former employee of the DEA to his attention, which says in part:

“A vast and deadly infrastructure provides it [cocaine] — from the plucking of the leaves of the highland bushes to the tiny gold straw that sucks a line into the delicate nostril of a mayor’s mistress in Oregon and makes her eyes sparkle. Within the present context, nothing can stop it. The losses of officialdom are within the limits, say, of spoilage in the vegetable business. It has been brought in by drone aircraft, radio-controlled. It has been brought in by one-man submarine. It has been shot ashore by slingshot from freighters docking at Tampa. Even were importation to be punished by death it would still go on, because the lifetime wages of a laborer can be carried in a single pocket.

“The only possible solution to this deadly trade is to ignore it. Legalize it along with marijuana. Then the infrastructure will sag and collapse. It will no longer be fashionable. Street dealers will no longer hustle new customers on high school sidewalks. And men won’t die in the squalid massacres we have seen recently in southeast Florida.

“But maybe it is too late for legalization. The bureaucracy of detection and control has a huge national payroll. Florida’s economy is as dependent on Lady Caine as it is on cattle or fishing. Legalization will be fought bitterly by politicians who will say that to do so will imperil our children. Are they not now imperiled?”

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