Friday, March 20, 2009

When Reality Comes Knocking...

Given the lack of coverage in America's broadcast news, you could be forgiven if you did not notice the escalating drug war in the US's southern neighbor, Mexico. In short, President Felipe Calderón has stepped up efforts to fight drug cartels that have become powerful enough to be considered the de facto leadership in some states and cities -- such as Sinaloa and Juarez, respectively. The organized, wealthy, and well-armed cartels have reacted with intense violence, killing more Mexicans last year than all American soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars combined. But fortunately -- if murder can ever can be considered "fortunate" -- most of the deaths are gang members, in the process of desperately struggling for territory. (Another good article on the situation.)

This is important for at least two reasons. First, the violence affects the lives of many Mexicans and threatens the society, in general. Second, killing, kidnapping, and increased migration (from desperate civilians in Mexico) is affecting the US.

The circumstance has become this dire for a few reasons -- two of which directly involve the US. First, for too long, these gangs had been left to their own devices or paid off police to leave them be. And continued failure by Mexico's presidents to reform the police has allowed cartels to grow roots in their respective territories. Second, many of the weapons the gangs are currently using to kill thousands come from 6,600 US gun dealers on the Mexican border who frequently sell weapons to middlemen, who then turn around and sell to the gangs. 

Third, and most importantly, the bulk of Mexico's drug trade is still feeding the US black market for marijuana.

Given the contributing factors, the solution must be matching. President Calderón has made reversing the first factor -- competent security and governance -- the centerpiece of his term. 

The second issue, guns, must be dealt with from the US side by much stricter regulation and tracking over gun sales. For example, new laws could require that gun purchasers prove their continued possession periodically -- maybe every few months. 

But as I alluded to before, the third factor is central: the demand for illegal drugs. And the obvious solution -- legalization -- is the reason why the US discussion of Mexico's violence is either insincere or ignored altogether. Take George Will's recent column, for example. He goes on for 90% of the article about the problem of violence spilling over into Arizona, but when it comes to the reality of confronting the problem, he writes one sentence:
Whatever the merits of legalization -- and there are certain to be costs -- it will not happen in the foreseeable future, which is where Arizonans must live.
Shrugging it off sure is easy, huh? 

I am not going to undertake a long argument for legalization here -- and I'd like to hear your opinions on it in the 'comments' section. (Besides, many have done a much more competent job than I could right now.) I will confine myself to the most relevant reason: drug cartels will figure out a way to get their products to the tens of millions of Americans who use them -- and will continue to do so -- as long as there are not legal channels. Put another way, the demand is a constant; the only malleable issue is who is supplying the drugs -- a gang or stores. 

Americans can continue to deny or ignore the reality at America's door. But what happens when it bursts in anyways?

March 22 - Update: for a better idea of the massive and profitable industry of marijuana in the US, read this article. (The article is from Foreign Policy magazine, but the FP website is having problems right now.)


  1. Having worked addicts and especially teens using drugs, I have been against legalization for a long time. However, I do not see a diminished appetite for marijuana in America and am becoming more inclined to vote for legalization with the hope that cartals would be less powerful. Yet,I wonder if the move would only make these cartals concentrate on more drugs like cocaine etc. The possibility of taxing the use of marijuana would definitely help the economy and would direct money to be used for other public needs. It certainly would affect income in Mexico, Afganistan etc that now enjoys American dollars spent on marijuana and would reduce many of the dollars spent on housing inmates in jail secondary to the use of marijuana. My doubt is related to "What next, Crack,Cocaine, Heroin???? cindy

  2. Great points, Cindy. A few things I'll say in response:

    First, I *swear* this is not a cop-out, but please do read this article by the Economist: They do a really succinct job of discussing this issue, especially from the supply-side.

    Second, would these cartels focus more on the remaining illegal drugs? Yes. Of course. But this doesn't mean that demand for the remaining illegal drugs will increase. As a result, cartels and other illegal suppliers will lose considerable power as their main product is taken away.

    Third, #2 becomes irrelevant if *all* drugs were brought into the legal system, as they should be. We *know*, from decades of experience, that fighting the "War on Drugs" is pointless from the supply-side. It is all costs with no benefit. Drugs should not be a criminal issue; they should be a medical issue. And like any other issue in health care, they can be regulated and tracked much more closely so that better ways can be formulated to reduce the demand. (When drugs are illegal, many of the people in need of help hide from the assistance that is available.) Again, I point you to the Econmist article for more cross-national data that bears this point out.

    Finally, the issue of the drug trade benefiting the incomes of people in drug crop countries. This is a misconception. Let's be clear: the people growing this stuff neither prefer to take the illegal risk (they are usually strong-armed or have no other option) nor make the bulk of the profit. Most of the money -- like any industry -- is going to the retailers and middlemen (i.e. the cartels).

    To the contrary, if drugs were legal, then these producers would either 1) make *more* money off of their drug crop because they'd be dealing with legit businesspeople or the government rather than gangs with guns; or 2)grow another crop for which there is a national or global demand. (And part of the transition could involve agricultural assistance for growing new crops from the World Food Program or the Food and Agriculture Organization.)

  3. Nice post, thank you. You're right that his hasn't gotten much coverage in the news and I had been wondering why. You'd think because Mexico is just right next door that it would warrant more discussion.

    At any rate - I agree with the legalization argument for several reasons, many of which have already been highlighted above. I would just like to add one more thought ... drugs could be taxed as are cigarettes and the money from the sales could be put towards (among other things) programs aimed at helping people quit drugs. HA! I'm not sure about this, but aren't the tobacco companies currently legally bound to provide some of their profits to awareness programs, such as the Truth ads?

    And just as a side question, if drugs were legalized now - I wonder if that would that help as another "economic stimulus?"

    Certainly, whether drugs are legal or not, people aren't going to stop seeking them out. We might as well put that money into the system rather than allow violent, powerful, horrible people control and kill over it.

  4. I could not agree more with legalization. Obviously, the criminalization of alcohol during prohibition and against teens under the "legal" age of 21 does not work Even decades long fight against prostitution does not work. When will we learn - we must not fill our system with money spent jailing these criminals users & suppliers], hiring crime fighters to find more criminals, and making it so lucrative for the suppliers that they have more money and a will to fight the legal systems. Legalize these activities, tax them, fund programs to help those who find these activities control their lives.

  5. First, I'll respond to Richard because my retort is simple: yes! Great point; I agree whole-heartedly. Societies' experience with trying to deny certain things (those that harm the actor more than anyone else) by criminalizing them has proven to lead not to less of it but, rather, to more dangerous forms of the taboo thing -- be it drugs or prostitution.

    Anonymous: you make a valid and useful point about taxes of drugs going toward rehab programs. And as I said before, bringing drugs into the light will allow policymakers and rehabilitators to know the true nature and scale of the problem they face and confront it more effectively.

    As for this change being part of the economic stimulus, I agree insofar as I agree that this change needs to be instituted ASAP. But politically, there just isn't enough serious discussion about this at the federal level. The Obama administration certainly doesn't want to spend poltiical capital on it until the economy turns, and many congresspeople know that (unfortunately) their constituents will respond in outrage due to a lack of understanding about the issue. (Hence, why this needs to be discussed and spread among the public as well as the choice of my blog post.)

    On the other hand, this is a medical issue (or should be), so maybe legalization -- or the initial steps -- could be part of the upcoming push for national health care. It may be a rare opportunity.