Cracks in the Drug War Fortress

The allegation by James Roberts that he has been the victim of ad hominem attacks is bizarre and unhelpful. Until his latest post, the discussion on Cato Unbound has been both civil and substantive. Since I seem to be the principal target of his complaint, I want to point out that I criticized his use of logic and evidence, not his character.

One persistent, troubling feature of his essays is his tendency to counter arguments that no one has made. For example, in his first contribution he alleged that opponents of prohibition see legalization as a “silver bullet.” I have never encountered a serious advocate of drug legalization who has asserted that such a step would solve all drug-related problems, either domestically and internationally. To the contrary, we have stressed that legalization would not be a panacea. It would, however, ameliorate the numerous horrific problems in the United States and abroad that have been the fruits of prohibition.

In his last essay, Mr. Roberts stresses that the Mexican cartels “will not simply go away” if legalization were adopted. Again, I know of no credible analyst who has made that argument. But greatly reducing the amount of revenue available to those criminal enterprises would undermine their power. Mexico’s cartels now exploit a $30 billion to $60 billion-a-year industry. Eliminating the black-market profit that results from prohibition would change that into a $3 billion to $6 billion-a-year industry. That means far fewer enforcers they can hire and far fewer bribes they can offer to officials. While trafficking gangs might attempt to replace part of that lost revenue with intensified activities in such areas as kidnapping and prostitution, those sources are not nearly as lucrative. Some of the cartels would remain in business as criminal enterprises, but they would be substantially weakened, thereby posing far less of a threat to Mexico’s stability.

Indeed, the United States could strike a major blow against the cartels just by legalizing marijuana, while postponing a policy decision regarding harder drugs. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that Mexican trafficking organizations derive two-thirds of their income from marijuana sales. Other estimates are slightly lower (around 55 percent), but marijuana is clearly the primary source of revenue. Under a legalized regime, who would bother buying that product from the Mexican cartels when legitimate domestic producers could provide an ample supply — and probably at lower cost, given the transportation advantages? In fact, many consumers would likely just grow their own supply.

Mr. Roberts insists that opponents of prohibition fill in virtually every detail about how drug legalization would work. That is a discussion for a later day — once the United States and other societies have made the decision to terminate the failed prohibition model. One point is clear already, though. There is little evidence to support his fear that drug use would explode under legalization and create more problems than we have now. Glenn Greenwald’s excellent Cato Institute White Paper on Portugal’s drug policy reforms — the most sweeping decriminalization regime to date regarding personal possession and use — definitively debunks that argument.

One striking feature in all of the essays Mr. Roberts has written for Cato Unbound is his failure to offer evidence that the current policy is working. That reticence is not surprising, because it would be a very hard case for anyone to make. Aside from the examples already cited of the devastating unintended consequences that prohibition has caused, there is one other telling point. Authorities have been unable even to keep illegal drugs out of our prisons — including maximum-security facilities. What chance is there, then, to keep drugs out of the hands of free citizens in a vast, diverse, and open society?

Dr. Castañeda is correct that support for the drug war is declining. Two developments in the past week confirm his analysis. On the heels of Mexico’s new law decriminalizing the personal possession of small quantities of illegal drugs was a decision by Argentina’s Supreme Court leading to a similar result. Around the world, there is a growing willingness to break with Washington’s insistence on strict prohibition. Even in the United States, the proliferation of medical marijuana initiatives since the mid-1990s is a harbinger of change. The recent emergence of a serious proposal to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana in America’s most populous state, California, is perhaps an even bigger signal of new thinking.

The drug war fortress is showing multiple cracks, as blows are administered both in the United States and other countries. One hopes that it will crumble entirely within the next decade or so. And just as bootleggers in the United States mourned the end of alcohol prohibition, the people who would be the most upset if drug prohibition comes to an end are the leaders of the Mexican cartels and other criminals who have benefited so much from the lucrative profits that drug warriors and their policies have made possible.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • A U.S. War with Mexican Consequences by Jorge Castañeda

    In his lead essay, Jorge Castañeda observes that the consequences of the U.S. drug war fall unevenly on Mexico. The U.S. taste for drugs – and for prohibition – are the chief causes of drug-related crime in Mexico, he asserts. This creates a problem that Mexico cannot solve on its own. U.S. assistance has been insufficient, and Mexican resources are too few to take on the drug cartels effectively. Even if the resources were available, the militarization of life in Mexico would be politically unacceptable to most Mexicans, who have enjoyed a relatively tranquil military in contrast to many other Latin American countries. Another approach to the war on drugs would simply be decriminalization, but again, Mexico cannot unilaterally decriminalize, because it would face severe diplomatic consequences from the United States and possibly become a refuge for addicts. The United States must lead the way toward solving this problem, which is of its own making.

Response Essays

  • Making “Hamsterdam” an Option by Stephanie Hanson

    Stephanie Hanson suggests that decriminalizing drugs, and possibly legalizing marijuana, is a promising strategy for reducing drug-related violence. Yet she acknowledges that coordination problems exist between the United States and Mexico on this issue, and she suggests that a second-best option may be to enforce stricter controls on guns leaving the United States and heading to Mexico.

  • The United States Must Help Mexico Defeat Narco-Insurgencies by James Roberts

    James Roberts faults Prof. Castañeda for taking the easy way out: Drug legalization might not be much work for the elites, but it will ruin lives and degrade regional democracies. It won’t stop violence and may even increase it. The United States and Mexico should work together to fight Mexican drug cartels because the survival of the Mexican state is at stake, along with American lives and American morals. Mexico in particular needs to step forward, reform its corrupt government and enforcement agencies, and get its own house in order, rather than seeking U.S.-based solutions.

  • Only a Drastic Change in U.S. Drug Policy Will Ease the Carnage in Mexico by Ted Galen Carpenter

    Ted Galen Carpenter commends Jorge Castañeda for recognizing the nature of the problem that besets his country, but he suggests a more radical solution: As long as U.S. prohibition remains in place, he writes, violent criminals will dominate the trade in narcotics. Only ending prohibition can solve the international problems of the drug trade. Militarization of enforcement simply escalates the violence and corruption, because the cartels have enough money to bribe and/or fight their way through any escalation we’d be prepared to mount.

The Conversation