My heart bleeds for Mexico. Since President Calderon declared war on drugs in 2006, 50,000 people have lost their lives in drug-related violence. The biggest consumer of Mexico’s illegal drug trade is the U.S., per the Mexican president. The complicated interlacing of the drug economy within the total Mexican economy is not surprising, given that drug trafficking is a billion-dollar industry. Big money follows big demand and the U.S. has plenty of that.
Millions of people enjoy what are commonly called vices. Some of these are socially accepted, such as alcohol and tobacco, but this was not always the case. Between 1920 and 1933, the U.S. had its own era of violence related to attempted governmental suppression of vice. The era of prohibition is largely viewed as a failed policy that caused more harm than good. Yet, the “new” prohibition against illegal drugs has been wreaking havoc not only in the U.S., but also in Latin America. Last year, the Global Commission on Drug Policy advised that the global war on drugs has failed and that countries should seek measures to end criminalization of drug use.
The U.S. government also reported last year that the amount of taxpayer dollars used in the effort cannot be justified, and given the resources that the U.S. must employ in global conflicts, the military is becoming increasingly unable to stop trafficking.
Many voices within Latin America are calling for decriminalization – if not outright legalization – of drugs due to the devastating effects of the war on their societies. Negative effects are also felt in the United States. As of 2010, a quarter of the incarcerated population was there for non-violent drug offenses. The cost of incarceration to taxpayers is significant, and the societal cost of misguided punitive policies rather than a therapeutic approach to addiction are perhaps some of the most compelling reasons to consider a change in current U.S. policy.
Alcohol is, after all, a drug, as nicotine is a drug in tobacco. There is not a small touch of hypocrisy in the notion that these drugs are acceptable for consumption but that use of drugs such as marijuana, for example, is more dangerous or immoral. It is time at least to consider the effects that decriminalizing, regulating and taxing some of these chemicals would have not only on U.S. public health but also on economic resources with increased revenue from legal sales combined with a reduction in the cost of apprehension, prosecution and incarceration of individuals for non-violent offenses. Such an approach would have the benefit of helping bring into legality the growth, transportation and sale of at least some of these substances, so that the violence accompanying their manufacture would be significantly attenuated in Latin America.
The current U.S. approach seeks to stop the cultivation and importation of drugs, but a market will always exist where consumers demand it. The government cannot eliminate the desire to consume; it should consider changing its approach to deal more rationally with the issue.