These are heady days for Mexican advocates of drug legalization. It started when Felipe Calderón kicked off a flurry of conversation with a call for debate on the topic in early August. Days later, President Calderón’s predecessor (and occasional sparring partner) Vicente Fox took a step further and wrote a piece advocating the immediate legalization of drug production and consumption in a post on his personal blog.
In the weeks that followed, newspaper opinion pages were filled to the brim with, fittingly, opinions regarding the various proposals being bandied about, and what their impact on Mexico would be.
The comments from the present and past presidents follow the participation of their predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo, in the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which has turned him into one of the most respected and high-profile legalization advocates on the globe.
All of this adds up to a scenario that is all-but-unthinkable in the US: a wide-open debate about drug legalization among the nation’s elites.
For the American corollary, think of the response from Barack Obama, during an online forum set up by the White House in March 2009, to questions about legalization of marijuana: “I don't know what that says about the online audience…. The answer is no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy.”
In other words, asked a legitimate question about revisiting an ongoing 40-year-old policy catastrophe that has turned the US into the world’s foremost jailer, has gravely degraded its neighbors’ governments, and has been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, Obama — himself a former drug user — responded with a joke and an evasion.
Moving beyond politicians’ comedic parrying, the arguments for legalization in Mexico, the US, and elsewhere are as solid as that rock in the Mediterranean that the British are so fond of. To wit: marijuana, the consumption of which presents less of a threat to society than that of alcohol, accounts for an estimated 60 percent of the roughly $20 billion that Mexican traffickers make on a yearly basis. That sum, presently used for such activities as buying off police officers and politicians, could be reduced by some $12 billion if US politicians embraced legalization of marijuana. (Legalization in Mexico would be hugely symbolic, but the Americans would need to go along for it to be a revolutionary change.)
Of course, this wouldn’t be a cure-all. Indeed, rather than immediately eliminating the drug gangs presently terrorizing many parts of Mexico, in all likelihood legalization would have some extremely sticky short-term consequences with regard to security, as gangs squeezed out of the marijuana trade would seek to replace the lost income through more menacing activities like extortion and kidnapping. For this reason, it would be folly to think of legalization as a substitute for Mexico’s uneven efforts to reform its criminal justice system.
However, if Mexico’s eventual future is to be one free of criminals with the wealth and power of Chapo Guzmán, the easiest and surest way to get there is to eliminate the source of the capos’ income: black market drugs. While legalization is often caricatured as the terrain of the soft-on-crime left, legalization is no lily-livered concession to drug traffickers. Indeed, it would be an existential assault on them.
Furthermore, the futility of prohibition is an established fact at this point, and has been for years. As Fox pointed out, the decision to use or not use drugs is a personal one, much as it was before prohibition, and much as is the case with alcohol. The drug prohibition has added a stigma to the use of certain drugs (though not always the right ones), but it has not made the desire to get high much more difficult to act on. Four decades after Nixon declared the War on Drugs, most drugs are cheaper, purer, and more plentiful than they were in the 1960s.
Unfortunately for proponents of legalization in Mexico, the chances of moving the debate toward the actual passage of legislation are slim. Less than 30 percent of the country is in favor of the measure according to most polls. But while a radical policy move like legalization would be a bad idea with such low levels of support, public debates such as that Mexico has witnessed these last few weeks could do wonders to increase support.
In contrast, the reluctance from US policy-makers to honestly consider legalization reflects a rather embarrassing (and bipartisan) lack of courage and logic. Of course, these two virtues have been conspicuously absent in official policy throughout the war on drugs, which is precisely why it has continued for more than two generations.
By Patrick Corcoran
August 23, 2010