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In the Drug War, Drugs Are Winning

The case for legalizing marijuana

Steve Chapman
March 29, 2010

When someone next door is coping with trouble, the neighborly thing to do is help. Mexico has a growing problem with extreme violence. And many people in California have a good idea of how to help.

Mexico has been wracked by murders connected to the drug trade. Last year, it suffered more than 6,500 drug-related killings, triple the number in 2007. And 2010 looks worse.

As of mid-March, more than 2,000 people have died in drug-related homicides—which puts Mexico on pace for more than 10,000 such deaths this year. That's more than one every hour.

This is not an epidemic of crazed meth addicts slaughtering people at random. It's the byproduct of a war involving narcotics traffickers, who sometimes kill each other, sometimes kill police and soldiers, sometimes kill journalists who report their crimes, and sometimes kill innocent bystanders.

So what can the Golden State offer in the way of assistance? Something potentially valuable. In November, Californians will vote on a ballot initiative that would make it legal not only to use marijuana but to grow and sell it.

You may think this would help only by allowing Mexicans to flee northward and escape their troubles in a stoner fog. But it would do more. Mexico is the biggest supplier of cannabis to the United States. Control of that market is one of the things that Mexican drug cartels are willing to kill for.

Legalizing weed in this country would be their worst nightmare. Why? Because it would offer Americans a legitimate supply of the stuff.

Criminal organizations would no longer be able to demand huge premiums to compensate for the major risks that go with forbidden commerce. If the referendum passes, some 39 million Californians will have access at lower prices, from regulated domestic producers.

So the drug cartels would see a large share of their profits go up in smoke. Those profits are what enables them to establish sophisticated smuggling operations, buy guns and airplanes, recruit foot soldiers, and bribe government officials. Those profits are also what makes all those efforts—and the murderous violence the merchants employ—worth the trouble.

By now, it should be clear that using force to wipe out the drug trade is a task on the order of bailing out the Atlantic Ocean with a teaspoon. Law enforcement can interdict shipments and imprison dealers, but the success is invariably short-lived.

Each seized cargo is an opportunity for another seller to fill the gap. Each arrested trafficker is an invitation for a competitor to grab his business. The more vigorous and successful the law enforcement campaign, the higher the prices drug suppliers can command—and the more people will be enticed to enter the market. It's a self-defeating process.

All this would be academic if Americans (and Mexicans) would simply lose their taste for illicit drugs. But we might as well hope the Sahara Desert will run out of sand.

There has always been a demand for mind-altering substances, and there always will be. That's why, despite all the resources the U.S. government has expended on locking up sellers and their customers, drug use is higher today than it was two decades ago.

Prohibition is no match for the obstinacy and ingenuity of many human beings. Iran has a repressive theocratic regime that imposes severe penalties for using and selling drugs—including death by hanging. Yet it has one of the highest rates of addiction in the world.

President Obama's promise of change is inapplicable in this realm. The Bush administration provided hundreds of millions of dollars to help Mexico fight the drug war. The Obama administration intends to keep sending money, the only real difference being that it will go to the police instead of the military.

On a recent trip to Mexico City, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that Americans' demand for drugs helps sustain the Mexican merchants and resolved to address the problem. "We are looking at everything that can work," she said.

Well, almost everything. The most viable option is the one that is considered unthinkable. The head of Obama's Office of National Drug Control Policy has said that "legalization is not in the president's vocabulary, nor is it in mine."

No, but failure is.

This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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