The Eroding Support for the Drug War

On Stephanie Hanson’s reflections, I think two points are in order.

First, today President Calderón signed into law a bill passed by Congress three months ago increasing the amounts of legally possessed drugs, from heroin, to meth, to cocaine. The allowed quantities are very small (smaller than in a similar bill passed in 2006 but vetoed by President Fox because of U.S. pressure), but larger than before. There is a three strikes you’re out provision, but it is a small step in the direction of decriminalization, and it was approved almost unanimously. There is not a consensus in Mexico on decriminalization, much less in public than in private, but there is a growing inclination.

Second, among Mexico’s levers with the United States would be the fact that if a growing number of U.S. states (fifteen at last count) continue to de facto decriminalize, through legalizing medical use and broadening the definition of medical use, we could soon see an absurd situation where the two federal governments spend billions and lose lives trying to stop the flow of drugs into the United States, where in many important states, those drugs are virtually legal. I take James Roberts’ point on this: it is going to be increasingly difficult to make the pitch for full-fledged penalization and a war on supply and demand, if in fact there are more and more loopholes for legal drug consumption. Mexico can use this as a lever to cajole Washington into at least studying the issue, as the Webb Commission has started to do.

On Mr. Roberts other related points, again, I would stress that the Colombia question is in my view more nuanced. I am sure Alvaro Uribe’s intentions are what Roberts suggests, namely taking on the guerrillas first, in order to strengthen the institutions to take on the drug cartelitos later. But I am not so sure that this will actually be the outcome of Uribe’s efforts. It may very well be that his two (or three) terms will have resulted in a significant curtailment of drug-related collateral damages (violence, kidnapping, guerrillas, paramilitaries, corruption), but not a decrease in the actual acreage of coca leaf, the production of powder cocaine, and its export to the United States, Europe, and Brazil, through old routes and new ones. This is not bad, but it could be seen as a de facto and involuntary but hard to deny legalization of drug production.

And finally, clearly a ramped-up Merida initiative would cost much less than health care reform, but I do not think there is any comparison between the benefits the American people seem to see in health care reform (after all, they did elect Obama), and in fighting a proxy drug war in Mexico. On the contrary, my impression is that, while support for the war in public opinion in Mexico, and in power circles in Washington, is still strong, it is ebbing as the costs for all involved grow, and the results are nowhere to be seen.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.