If ever there were a time for politicians to open up this debate, it is now
For months, Mexican drug trafficking organizations have battled it out with the Mexican government, the U.S. government, and each other, with violence escalating on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border. Since 2007, the Mexican drug war has claimed the lives of more than 7,500 people, including 200 Americans. Congress has already held several hearings on the issue and there are more to come. Although they will try, it will be hard for members of Congress to continue ignoring the root cause of the problem – drug prohibition.
Many parts of Mexico today are like Chicago during the days of alcohol Prohibition and Al Capone – times fifty. Citizens wonder who is in control: the government or one or another of the criminal organizations. The U.S. Joint Forces Command recently warned that the Mexico government is in danger of becoming a weak and failed state and could descend into chaos. The U.S. State Department has issued an advisory warning Americans of the risks of traveling to Mexico, including being accidentally killed in violent confrontations between drug traffickers and the Mexico military.
As Mexico deals with the violence, crime and corruption of global drug prohibition, the United States is just beginning to confront the consequences of its own prohibitionist excesses. With less than 5% of the world’s population, we have almost 25% of the world’s prisoners. The incarcerated population has grown from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.3 million today, of which roughly a third are locked up for drug law violations or other prohibition-related offenses. We rank first in the world in the per capita incarceration of our fellow citizens – and we incarcerate more people than China, whose overall population is four times greater than ours. Millions of Americans are barred from voting or accessing student loans, public housing or other assistance because of a drug law conviction. Even well-heeled states have been forced to put off expenditures on health, education, housing, and environmental protection in order to pay for prisons.
It’s no wonder then that more and more people are raising questions about the basic prohibitionist paradigm. In the border city of El Paso, Texas, where several Mexican mayors live and commute to work out of fear their families will be killed if they live in Mexico, the city council passed a resolution in January calling on Congress to debate drug legalization as a way of reducing prohibition-related violence. In February, the Latin-American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, a high-level commission co-chaired by former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, called for a “paradigm shift” in global drug policy, including decriminalizing marijuana, and “breaking the taboo” on open and robust debate about all drug policy options.
The Attorney General of Arizona, citing evidence that Mexican drug trafficking organizations get 60% to 80% of their revenue from marijuana, has suggested that national policymakers debate legalizing marijuana as a way to cripple both Mexican and U.S. gangs. Although he was careful to say he wasn’t advocating legalization, he nevertheless asked the right question: Should marijuana be taxed and regulated like alcohol?
Critics will say legalization might increase drug use. Perhaps. But then again, studies around the world have found that the relative harshness of drug laws matters surprisingly little. After all, rates of illegal drug use in the United States are the same as, or higher than, Europe, despite our more punitive policies. And thirteen U.S. states have already decriminalized marijuana, but marijuana use rates in those states go up and down at roughly the same rates as in other states.
What matters most, of course, is not how many people use marijuana, alcohol or other drugs, but how best to reduce both the harms of drug misuse and the harms of drug control policies. Seventy five years ago Americans recognized that the harms of alcohol misuse had been exceeded by the harms of alcohol Prohibition; they responded by repealing a national amendment for the one and only time in our nation’s history. Hundreds of thousands of Americans die prematurely each year because of cigarette smoking but we’re still wise enough to understand that tough public health strategies produce better overall results than criminal prohibition.
Marijuana is dramatically less dangerous than either alcohol or cigarettes. It’s far less addictive than the latter, and typically consumed in much smaller amounts. It lacks alcohol’s powerful association with violence, accidents and reckless sexual behavior. It’s impossible to die of a marijuana overdose. And the consequences of marijuana addiction, for the small proportion of marijuana consumers who do become addicted, are dramatically less than the consequences of alcohol addiction.
With Mexico in crisis, U.S. prisons packed beyond capacity, and state and federal deficits soaring, the time has come to at least consider taxing and regulating marijuana. A 2005 study endorsed by hundreds of economists found that legalizing marijuana could save approximately $7.7 billion a year in government expenditures. Taxing it like alcohol or tobacco could generate another $6.2 billion in revenue. That’s enough to hire almost 350,000 new elementary school teachers or put 290,000 new police officers on the street. No one would hate the new policy more than Mexico’s drug traffickers; after all, they’d be out of business.
Forty percent of all Americans say it’s time to legalize marijuana. In some western states, support for legalization is approaching fifty percent. If ever there were a time for politicians to open up this debate, it is now.
Bill Piper is director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance.
Ethan Nadelmann is founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
By Bill Piper and Ethan Nadelmann
Posted March 23, 2009.