COHA Research Associate
Is legalization the idealistic response to drugs, or is prohibition the right approach?
I was blocked head-on by two humvees full of armed Mexican soldiers while on my way to pay respects to a friend. Twelve assault rifles and two .50 caliber machine guns were aimed at my face as I stepped out of the vehicle. I didn’t ask any questions because I knew exactly why it was happening. This was Ciudad Juárez.
I found out later that 54 people were killed that weekend just a half-mile from where I slept. All I wrote in my journal that Friday night was that the stars looked amazing. What’s amazing is how unaware we can be sometimes- my American friends were out partying while my friends in Mexico were dying for their sins. It’s like they were dancing to Sunday Bloody Sunday.
Recent headlines read “Drug Violence Spills Across Border,” “Mexican Drug Traffickers Corrupt Politics” and “Another Mass Grave Found in Mexico,” but the crisis is not Mexico’s alone. They say that for someone attempting to break a drug addiction, the first step is to admit that they have a problem. It’s time for the U.S. to admit it has a very serious drug problem. Since seventy percent of drug cartel funding comes from marijuana sold to Americans, fixing the problem demands discussion of a hitherto taboo alternative- the legalization of marijuana and other illicit drugs.
To me, it is no coincidence that the War on Drugs and Vietnam were both born in the same era as both are the progenies of American idealism. Drug legalization has been criticized as utopian, but frankly, I think it may be the opposite- the prohibitionists are the ones holding on to an impossible dream. The very idea that enforcement of prohibition will form a perfect equilibrium at a manageably low level of drug use is practically a parody of Icarus. Such a magical moment will never come; it simply is not possible to eradicate enough cocoa plants, kill enough narcotrafficantes, or secure the border with enough agents and technology to achieve satiety. If anyone was to be criticized of utopian indulgences it would be the man who thought that somehow our paper, guns, cameras and dogs could shut down a multi-billion dollar industry.
When difficulties break out in the War on Drugs, the answer has always been adjusting the existing prescription through measures such as increasing border patrol or decreasing arms traffic. But when you step back, how ridiculous is it that Americans and Mexicans are killing each other with machine guns and grenades over a plant? Moreover, why have over 11,000 Mexicans died from drug violence in the last two years? And why are there 500,000 Americans behind bars for non-violent drug offenses? As such, the only definite results of the drug war have been mounting causalities. Medical treatment, education, and profit reduction strategies through legalization offer more promising prospects for success than locking up countless black and Latino youths while sending profits directly to Mexican drug cartels to buy weapons and bribe politicos.
The chief obstacles standing in the way of solving the drug problem appear to be social and political in nature. Drug legalization has historically been such a taboo a subject that any politician even suggesting it might as well turn in their resignation letter. As one statesman put it, “We know what to do; we just have no idea how to get reelected after we do it.” Thus, it falls on the shoulders of the citizen to let political figures know that we want solutions and won’t crucify them for letting people, god forbid, grow their own marijuana instead of paying violent gangs in Mexico to do it for them. The examples of Portugal and The Netherlands illustrate that, rather than making drug use endemic, legalization can actually be a tool to reduce it.
No matter how faithful we are to the prohibitionist model, no one is rescuing Timmy from the well, Casey is not coming back in the bottom of the ninth, and, no matter how many times we kiss it, the frog is not turning into a prince. We’ve chased the elusive mirage of prohibition and meanwhile perpetuated malfeasance, venal legal systems and violent, organized crime rings throughout Latin America. Our policy apothecary is not just wanting, it is irreparably poisoned. Sirs and madams, it’s time to go shopping for some new ideas.