Drugs: Legalize and Regulate (2)

The Cost of Prohibition

Weapons of Mexican Drug Lord

These blinged-out automatic weapons are a telling symbol of our current prohibition based approach to drugs. It gifts vast sums of money into the hands of a tiny circle of crime lords who perpetuate the most horrific crimes imaginable. These guns, with their intense juxtaposition of the fantasies of lunatic wealth and the all too real death they deal out, belonged to drug dealer Oscar Orlando Nave Valencia and were discovered when authorities searched his house after his arrest.

I was planning to post some photos here to show the violence of the drug war in Mexico, but, you’ll be happy to hear, I just can’t bring myself to do it. If you want to see for yourself what’s happening, check out Blog del Narco, perhaps the most astonishing blog on the web. Two young guys tell it exactly how it is, no holds barred, and have somehow stayed alive. Be warned – the images are graphic and disturbing.

The violence associated with the drug cartels of Mexico has spiraled out of control, with 29 000 dead since 2006 when President Calderón came to power on a strong anti-drugs platform. His heavy-handed, military based approach has resulted in major successes.

In November 2007, customs officials in Manzanillo, Colima state, seized 26 tons of cocaine from a Hong Kong-flagged ship that had sailed from Colombia. The seizure was the largest in Mexican history, more than double the previous record of 11 tons recovered that October in Tamaulipas state. In July 2007, the Mexican navy captured a self-propelled, semisubmersible vessel loaded with nearly 5 tons of cocaine off the coast of Oaxaca state, the first such capture by Mexican authorities. Also in July, federal police near Guadalajara, Jalisco state, uncovered the largest synthetic drug production facility ever found in the country, recovering some 8,000 barrels of ephedrine and acetone, two key ingredients in the manufacture of crystal methamphetamine. Source

In addition, important members of nearly all the country’s drug trafficking organizations have been arrested over the last 12 months, although the highest-ranking kingpins continue to evade capture. Rising street prices of cocaine suggest that the policy has succeeded in restricting supply.

But the cartels are ever resilient, and have been actively responding, especially by shifting operations into other Central American countries such as Guatemala, with the result that its homicide rate has seen a steep climb to its current astonishing level of 52/100 000, a rate that is exceeded only by other nations in the region. The cartels have even become bold enough to directly launch violent attacks well over the US border.

The partial success of Calderón’s policy has not led to a decrease of violence in his country.

One apparent paradox for the Calderon administration has been that even while the government has clearly succeeded in damaging the cartels, the country’s security situation continues to deteriorate at what appears to be an unstoppable rate.

The most obvious sign of this deteriorating security situation is that the total number of drug-related homicides continues to climb dramatically. The nearly 2,700 killings that occurred in 2007 made it the deadliest year up to that point in the country’s drug war. However, 2007 has paled in comparison to 2008, when the 2007 total was surpassed in the first seven months. The death toll currently sits at more than 5,000. At this rate, the country may well finish 2008 with twice the number registered in 2007.

In addition to the rise in the number of killings, the violence has escalated in other important ways that are more difficult to measure. First, Mexican drug violence is just as brutal as ever. Beheadings have now become a regular occurrence, with the most noteworthy incident from this past year being the 12 decapitated bodies of alleged drug dealers found outside Merida, Yucatan state. In the past, most beheadings took place after the victim had been killed. Increasingly, however, authorities report that victims are beheaded alive. source

The situation in cities like Juárez has become so bad that analysts describe it as a state of ‘criminal anarchy’. Article after article after article detail the violence and chaos. In such an intractable situation even Calderón himself has called for talks on legalization. It has become painfully clear that the real victims of the ‘War on Drugs’ are the people of Mexico and other countries drawn into this sickening criminal spiral. As always, it is the poor and the ‘other‘ who bear the blame for the appetites of the rich.

I have focussed on the situation in Mexico only because it is easy, as it has received a lot of media coverage recently. But I have no doubt that similar problems, to a greater or lesser degree, will affect all countries that supply our appetite for drugs.

It is worth sparing a thought of compassion for those involved in the drug industry. It is a $5 billion industry in Mexico, employing half a million people. In poor countries, that’s a big deal and it must be hard to resist the attraction. People are drawn into this life, not because they are bad people, but because of the conditions and opportunities that they encounter. This is not to excuse it in any way, just to understand. Nobody starts life as a murderer. The violence takes its toll, not just on the bodies of the victims, but on the souls of the perpetrators.

All this is a direct result of criminalization. Make drugs legal, ensure that clean drugs from legitimate, legal sources are available at a reasonable price, and these problems will go away. Crime will always exist, but if you remove billions of dollars of profits, the extent of crime must fall. In a world where so many problems seem so intractable, it is surely a sign of hope that this is something that has a recognizable cause and an achievable solution.

It is ethically abhorrent for Western countries, or drug-consuming countries generally, to maintain domestic policies that have such a drastic, direct, and harmful effect on peoples in other lands. If we are genuinely concerned to manage and minimize the harm that drug consumption does, we must start with those harms that are real, not just hypothetical, and which can actually be eliminated. An ethical domestic policy must not just consider the situation at home, but should take into account the international implications.

See, if you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel. That’s literally true.

Milton Friedman


12 thoughts on “Drugs: Legalize and Regulate (2)

  1. Dear Bhante

    OK, I’ll bite. Part of the argument for legalisation, ie to decelerate the spiralling violence by removing the monopoly from the ones with the guns, seems to resonate. I still think that the predicted outcome is an untested hypothesis, as I don’t imagine why any of the cartels will NOT be motivated to violently protect their turf from legal peddlers and manufacturers.

    Now, on to the costs.

    • Quite correct, no-one can predict exactly what will happen, so caution is certainly needed: radical changes tend to leave a lot of damage in their wake.

      If legal manufacturing were to be set up in existing production areas, then there is no doubt, as you say, that there will be violent resistance from the cartels. But this merely to repeat Milton Friedman’s point, that the current situation serves the cartel’s interests.

      In the case of countries like Australia and the US, this problem could be solved by producing domestic drug supplies locally. Australia already produces opium for medical use. This would be part of the “and Regulate” side of things.

    • I’m coming late to this discussion, and I’m sure this will be addressed in subsequent installments. But we do have an historical example of how the violence is greatly reduced following legalization, and that is America’s experience with Prohibition.

      When alcohol was made illegal, the appetite did not disappear, and entrepreneurial gangsters stepped in to provide the supply. Because it was illegal, the only way to protect your trade was through violence. When alcohol was legalized again, organized crime didn’t continue to fight to protect its interests. It either legitimized its operations, or moved on to other ventures, such as the heroin trade.

    • Indeed, decriminalization *is* a tested hypothesis: I agree with the analogy to alcohol, which is a far more dangerous, destructive, and addictive drug than marijuana, psilocybin (mushrooms) and LSD, all of which are criminalized. Besides the decriminalization of alcohol, there is the case of Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs more than a decade ago and has been successful by every measure. (More info on that here: http://www.cato.org/publications/white-paper/drug-decriminalization-portugal-lessons-creating-fair-successful-drug-policies)

      The objection that decriminalization is an untested hypothesis is further flawed in that it implies that our current approach does any good at all. Contrary to the prevailing assumptions, drug criminalization has never achieved any of its goals. Literally none. Neither drug use, drug supplies, nor the harms associated with drugs have decreased since criminalization. Unlike Sujato in this article, I do not consider arrests of drug lords successes in the least bit, because literally every time that happens, more drug lords come along to meet the always-increasing demand.

    • Thanks Jonathon,

      Since writing this series of articles, the whole problem has gone from bad to worse. The violence just doesn’t stop. At least now some of the leaders in Central/South America are starting to stand up and address the issue.

  2. Maybe a good start would be to have stronger legislation in the US with regard to gun Control. Stop the (illegal) export of these weapons which are causing havoc in nearby countries.

    I don’t think the real problem is the legal status of drugs. It is more about what fuels drug use and criminality.

    In the UK I think legalization unless very heavy regulated would be a disaster due to our physical location (on the Edge of europe).

    This piece from the New York Times may be of interest: Legal Drugs Kill Far More Than Illegal, Florida Says http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/14/us/14florida.html

  3. This reminds me of a talk by Pema Chodron that I listened to recently. She was talking about the power of taking the five precepts. She remarked that for many laypeople coming to Buddhism, the first precept seems pretty easy to keep, unless we interpret it in a fairly demanding manner and start thinking about mosquitos, for instance. (On a quick tangent, I had a nice time today ushering a little band of mosquitos, one by one, out of the caravan I’m staying in at Santi. They were surprisingly gentle and cooperative – much more so than the blood-thirsty, drug-dealing Sydney mosquitos I’m used to.)

    But to get back to Pema Chodron’s story, for people caught up in the drug wars in Mexico and other similar places, keeping the first precept can be a hugely challenging and transformative practice. They live in a context in which killing people is normal – there are moral rules regarding who it’s OK to kill (someone from another cartel, another family etc, not your own), but killing itself isn’t regarded as wrong. The story she tells about young people taking the precept, challenging this cultural presumption and changing their own lives and the lives of people around them is very inspiring.

  4. …. not to mention the number of people who die from the consumption of drugs. I believe compassion for the addict is needed. Who knows what life dealt them to end up where they are. Would we have been any different in their shoes? The addict buys their drugs from other addicts who are only motivated by feeding their own habit. They sell heroin to take heroin. If they dont have enough, they will cut their wares with brick dust and other nasties. The result is each batch varies in strength. The majority of people who die from heroin overdoses do so because they dont know the strength of their drug. Each batch is different in strength depending on how much it has been cut. They inject what they think is a reasonable hit and the batch they just took happened to be cut less, and therefore alot stronger than normal and bang they’re dead. If heroin was legalised and controlled, purity would be regulated, junkies would know what they were taking and the addict’s death toll minimised. To quote a memorable Neil Young line “every Junkie is like a setting sun….”.

    • Thanks, Dave, another good point. It seems to me likely that if drugs were legalized and properly regulated, made available in consistent, clean batches, with information on proper usage, dosage, warnings, and so on, then even if the total quantity consumed was higher, the amount of harm may well be less.

      One point, though: only a small percentage of users are addicts. It’s probably impossible to quantify this with any clarity, but the analysis on this page is interesting. According to the data given here, in the US in 1995 there were 3.7 million who had used cocaine in the previous year, of whom 600 000 used at least weekly. The number of addicts would be a subset of those 600 000, although the then drug czar claimed all of them were addicts – an example of how these figures are manipulated for political ends. Obviously someone who uses a substance once or twice a week is not an addict in any meaningful sense of the word. If we accept, say, half the 600 000, then maybe 10% of users are addicts. Actually I think the figure is probably much lower.

      The figures in the article linked to show another interesting trend. The hardline ‘war on drugs’ approach, costing billions of dollars each year, succeeded in reducing the number of casual users, but made no dent in the numbers of addicts. In other words, it had no effect on the behaviors that are most harmful. The rate of harm, in fact, increased dramatically according to the rates of hospital visits for drug emergencies as quoted in the article: they increased from 5,000 in 1980 to 142,000 in 1995 for cocaine, and from 12,000 to 76,000 in 1995 for heroin.

  5. A very powerful movie – Maria Full of Grace – about a woman recruited to bring heroin into the US. It was very intense and opened my eyes to the complexity of this issue.

    Criminalization of drugs affects all of us. We support so many of the drug criminals in jails that our schools and safety nets are hurting. We lock people up to keep us all safe. I think there is a role for Buddhists in these issues, because (1) if we don’t use the drugs, then it is not possible to be only advocating for change based on our self-interests and (2) because actually looking at these rules based on what is the least harm makes a LOT of sense.

    It’s an important issue and a shift in the world on this issue, whether it starts in the US or Australia, could transform a number of international problems and internal issues.

    I really appreciate the fact that you are delving into this topic!

    • I would not show this movie to a young teen – it is very graphic and teaches about how young women are pulled into the drug trade and used. As long as they were successful, it was a fast way to make money, but in the end – it was the end.

      I find movies like this to be disturbing and so I would not show it to someone without them wanting to see it and some maturity. (I’m a lightweight when it comes to handling visual images – whether a movie or those generated in my mind by graphic descriptions…)

      It might be useful for discussion in certain situations and good for any adult wanting to understand the drug trade and the effects of drugs being illegal.

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