There are a few ways that North Americans can help Mexico resolve its drug-trafficking crisis. The first option, which has dominated policy making, would be for U.S. and Mexican military and law enforcement forces to collaborate in pushing illicit production and trafficking out of Mexico—and into neighboring countries. That’s a significant challenge, given Mexico’s proximity to the United States, but such efforts appear to be gaining ground, much to the dismay of governments and societies in Central America and the Caribbean. Mexico’s smaller neighbors to the south and east are even more vulnerable than Mexico to the temptations, corruptions, and intimidations of transnational criminal organizations. Mexican successes in displacing illicit drug production and trafficking from its territory can only hurt its neighbors while doing nothing to reduce illicit drug consumption in the United States.
So what else could the United States do? There are at least five options. First, we can stop consuming the sorts of drugs that come from or through Mexico to the United States. Both Mexican president Felipe Calderón and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agree on that, as do most people in both countries. But there is no historical evidence to suggest that such a simple solution is likely to happen. Only a few million people in the United States buy the illegal drugs that Mexico exports, and they seem mostly indifferent to the implications of their purchases south of the border.1 Meanwhile, those who profit from the illicit market have every incentive to sustain it.
Second, we can “buy American.” That’s an increasingly realistic option with marijuana, which is grown throughout the United States. But Mexican producers and traffickers have little interest in ceding market share to North Americans; indeed, some Mexican criminal organizations now employ Mexican citizens to grow marijuana in the United States, which presumably increases their costs of production but decreases costs of distribution. They also have responded to police crackdowns on “mom and pop” methamphetamine laboratories in the United States by building sophisticated labs in Mexico to meet U.S. demand.
Third, we can legalize marijuana. That was a radical idea as recently as 2006, when only 36% of respondents to a Gallup poll favored the idea, and 60% opposed it. But it’s a lot less radical now, when support for legalizing marijuana use has jumped to 46% and opposition has dropped to 50%.2 Proposition 19, the California ballot initiative to legalize marijuana, garnered a stunning 46.5% of the vote in November. Similar initiatives may be on the ballot in various states in 2012 and subsequent elections, and it’s only a matter of time before one wins.
Legalizing marijuana in one U.S. state or even the country as a whole won’t solve Mexico’s trafficking crisis, but it will represent a major step in that direction. It’s not just that Mexican growers and traffickers will lose market share to legal U.S. producers and distributors. It’s that U.S. legalization will surely sway many Mexicans to advocate a similar solution in their own country, which would, after all, be the best way to alleviate Mexico’s particular crisis.
Fourth, we can get serious about reducing domestic demand for cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. Since most of these drugs are consumed by a minority of particularly heavy users, the best ways to reduce demand are (1) to make diverse treatment options readily available to addicts, without ideological constraints, and (2) to allow those people who are unable or unwilling to quit to obtain the drugs they desire from legal, regulated sources. Programs in Europe and Canada that provide pharmaceutical heroin to people addicted to illegal heroin have proven highly successful in reducing illegal heroin use as well as crime, disease, and death.3 Objections to initiating such programs in the United States are grounded solely in politics, not science.
And, fifth, we can join with Mexicans in breaking the taboo in our public sphere on considering all drug policy options, including the great diversity of options for legally regulating the drugs that are now illegal. Legalization has to be on the table. Not because it is necessarily the best solution. Not because it is the obvious alternative to the evident failures of drug prohibition. But for three important reasons: because it is the best way to significantly reduce the crime, violence, corruption, and other extraordinary costs and harmful consequences of prohibition; because there are as many options—indeed more—for legally regulating drugs as there are options for prohibiting them; and because putting legalization on the table involves asking fundamental questions about drug prohibitionism. We have to debate whether drug prohibitions were, or are, truly essential to protect human societies.
Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (drugpolicy.org).
1. For numbers on illicit-drug users in the United States, see U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Results From the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Volume I. Summary of National Findings, Figure 2.1, “Past Month Illicit Drug Use among Persons Aged 12 or Older: 2009,” oas.samhsa.gov/NSDUH/2k9NSDUH/2k9Results.htm#Ch2.
2. Elizabeth Mendes, “New High of 46% of Americans Support Legalizing Marijuana,” Gallup.com, October 28, 2010.
3. See, for example, Karen Kaplan, “Let Them Take Heroin, Study Says,” Los Angeles Times, August 19, 2009; Benedict Carey, “Study Backs Heroin to Treat Addiction,” The New York Times, August 20, 2009; John Tierney, “Prescription Heroin?” The New York Times, August 20, 2009.