Sunday, March 29, 2009

How to End Mexico's Drug Violence

With our relationship with Mexico being strained from the US demand for illegal drugs and the resulting violence of its drug traffickers, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered the following frank words as outlined in a NYT article Clinton Says U.S. Feeds Mexico Drug Trade.

“Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,” Mrs. Clinton said, using unusually blunt language. “Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians.”

So with the Obama Administration acknowledging that demand for these drugs is the basic cause of the problem, what do they propose to do about it? If you look at The White House Response, you will see lots of law enforcement help for Mexico including sending helicopters and beefing up border enforcement.

And at the end of the very long list of proposed measures is a paragraph added at the end almost as an afterthought saying “We are renewing our commitment to reduce the demand for illegal drugs here at home.”

So despite all the feel-good talk about stepped up law enforcement is a tacit admission that we have no really effective means of doing anything about the demand for these drugs. And meanwhile, the drug related violence in Mexico which has claimed over 7,200 lives so far continues on and is spilling across the border into the US.

With the demand for illegal drugs resulting in large amounts of money going across the border into Mexico, the drug traffickers there are more than willing to part with some of that money to buy US weapons to use against both Mexican law enforcement officers and rival drug cartels. While offering to assist Mexico with law enforcement may possibly treat the symptoms, without an effective way to address the demand for the drugs, ending the violence there is largely an exercise in futility.

It’s not like we haven’t tried to reduce demand here in the US. We have tried the “Just Say No” campaign along with the “War on Drugs”. But the result has been an overflowing of US prisons with a huge number of non-violent drug offenders. Trying to enforce a prohibition of drugs like marijuana has had similar results to attempting the US prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s which led to the growth of organized crime and violence — just like what is happening in Mexico. The lesson (which led to the repeal of Prohibition) was that as long as there was a demand for alcohol despite its being illegal, law enforcement efforts to try and eradicate it proved to be futile. And so it is the same story with drugs. When will we learn?

President Obama obviously hasn’t learned. In his recent online political forum, a large number of questions were about whether he would be in favor of legalizing marijuana with the intent of taxing and regulating it as reported in the NYT article
'Grass' Roots Lobby Games Obama's Town Hall.

For those of us who have been watching the voting in online political forums over the last few years, it came as no surprise that the “stoner constituency” gamed the pool of questions for President Obama’s town hall meeting Thursday.

The White House set up a new feature this week, asking people to submit questions to Mr. Obama via the Internet, queries they could then vote on. Some of the most popular were asked of the president today in the East Room, and that’s how a question came up about legalizing marijuana by allowing the government to tax and regulate it.

Mr. Obama joked that the popularity of the marijuana question must somehow be reflective of the Internet audience whose questions and votes were solicited.
The comment response by NYT reader Markian sums things up well from my viewpoint:

I, like many Americans, was unimpressed with the quick dismissal of this topic. To brush off a growing constituency as a bunch of stoners is a slap in the face. This constituency includes those who advocate its medical use, those who aspire to end an ugly and costly war with no end, those who see its agricultural and economic benefits, and then of course, those who use it.

This is about far more than a bunch of ‘stoners’ who want to get high. It is about an ongoing policy, “The War on Drugs” that I argue in a previous posting has been an unmitigated disaster. It is the continuation of this ‘War’ that more than anything else drives the drug related violence in Mexico by preserving the profit motive of its drug trade. Conversely, the availability of legally grown marijuana here in the US would deal a crushing blow to the Mexican drug trade.

More progressive thinkers on this issue are rejecting the old ideas of prohibition in favor of an alternative policy of
harm reduction.

Harm reduction began in the 1980s as a public health strategy to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS among people who inject drugs. From its clinical successes, most notably with needle exchange, and from its pragmatic and compassionate values, emerged an alternative vision for drug policy as a whole. Harm reduction is grounded in the conviction that people should not be punished for what they put into their bodies, but only for crimes committed against others. It acknowledges that no society will ever be free of drugs. It holds that drug policies should seek to reduce the negative consequences (principally death, disease, crime and suffering) of both drug use and the policies themselves.
Harm reduction is the cornerstone of the drug policy of The Netherlands which legalizes the sale of soft drugs in coffee shops under strict rules.
And despite the fears of what this may have brought:

The extent and nature of the use of soft drugs does not differ from the pattern in other Western countries. As for hard drugs, the number of addicts in the Netherlands is low compared with the rest of Europe and considerably lower than that in France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. Dutch rates of drug use are lower than U.S. rates in every category.

For now, those of us hoping for change have to take solace in the words of NYT reader
Rich in response to the above NYT article:

If Obama were to support legalization he would do nothing but give the GOP reasons to complain, it wouldn’t pass, and it would distract from the economic agenda, health care and energy independence. Wait until the 2nd term and we may see something. The reasons for legalization are there, the politics are not. Patience is a virtue, the time will come.

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