How Ending the Drug War Would Support Human Rights in Mexico

Thousands of Mexicans took to the streets last week to protest violence related to drug trafficking and the Mexican government’s inability or unwillingness to prevent it.  U.S. and international activists who want to show solidarity with the people of Mexico must recognize that the most effective step we can take is to bring the war on drugs to an end.

Drug prohibition has not only failed to reduce drug consumption in the United States or Mexico, but it has done nothing to diminish the power of the drug traffickers who are engaged in bloody battles with each other and with Mexican security forces.

On the contrary, prohibition gave birth to the criminal empires of today’s narcotraffickers and sustains their phenomenal earnings. We would not see the same high levels of violence, crime and corruption that plague Mexico were it not for these policies. By pushing the drug trade underground, prohibition has created an immense black market for these substances that is at once incredibly profitable and violently competitive.  Prohibition ensures that this market is run by violent criminals instead of legitimate businesspeople.

In a vicious circle, the exorbitant profits generated by the underground drug trade lead every day to more violence, more corruption, more assassinations of public officials, and the degradation of Mexico’s fragile democratic institutions.

The response of Mexican President Felipe Calderon has been to unleash the army and federal police against the traffickers, while the U.S. response, as usual, has been to throw millions of dollars in military aid at the problem.  This strategy has little to show for it, except for an ever-climbing death toll: nearly 38,000 people have been killed in Mexico in the past four years, including thousands of children, young people, migrants, journalists, and government officials.  And as Mexican federal security forces have been sent into the streets in pursuit of the cartels, human rights abuses committed at their hands have become unacceptably commonplace.

We are seeing the same basic dynamics as those at play during alcohol Prohibition, but far more deadly. After less than 14 years, the United States decided to re-legalize alcohol because its prohibition, just like that of drugs today, proved unsustainable and impossible to enforce.  Prohibition caused a huge surge in organized crime, violence and corruption, and the deaths of thousands of people from drinking homemade or industrial alcohol. It also created a new population of nonviolent prisoners; again, the same phenomena we are experiencing with illicit drugs today.

U.S. demand for illegal drugs fuels the Mexican crisis.  As long as there is a demand for drugs, there will be someone to supply it, especially when prohibition ensures such phenomenal earnings.  The current prohibitionist approach has been ineffective in reducing demand.  In fact, the U.S. government appears not even to be trying.  Roughly two-thirds of the U.S. federal drug budget is focused on the supply-side (including the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative, as well as other destructive militaristic strategies, like Plan Colombia).  Only one-third is focused on the demand-side of equation, that is, on education, prevention and treatment combined.

Moreover, what little monies the U.S. government is investing in demand reduction are not going toward effective programs.  Instead of focusing on the best, proven, evidence-based approaches to treatment and education, the U.S. is still spending too much on ineffective and destructive policies, at home and abroad.

In order to bring an end to the ongoing tragedy that parts of Mexico are living and to prevent other forms of militarism related to the drug war, we must reform our drug policy.

There are many options for reform. First, and most easy to accomplish, the U.S. government must shift its budgetary priorities to make a greater and wiser investment in demand reduction.  It must eliminate or significantly reduce futile, wasteful and harmful policies such as eradication and military aid programs.  All U.S. drug policies should be required to adopt basic performance measures, so that policymakers and the public can see if they are working with clarity and transparency, and judge the effects of these policies. Performance measures could and should also encompass strong human rights standards.  Currently only a fraction of Merida Initiative funds are indexed to any sort of human rights standards or accountability and no benchmarks are included.

What is needed most, however, is to change the current paradigm of drug prohibition, and move toward a new paradigm of drug legalization and regulation.  Legalizing and regulating drugs would allow the international community to take control of the markets for these commodities, displacing violent traffickers and eroding the economic base they use to bribe or assassinate officials and to recruit new members to commit homicides daily.

The move toward legalization and regulation will be incremental – beginning with marijuana.  Legalizing marijuana alone would strike a serious blow to organized crime. The DEA and FBI testified before Congress last year that, “Marijuana is the top revenue generator for Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations–a cash crop that finances corruption and the carnage of violence year after year.”

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and its allies are actively working towards legalizing marijuana in several states. Last year, we came close in California, where Proposition 19 –the ballot initiative to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana—garnered 46.5% of the vote in a non-presidential election with low voter turnout.  Similar initiatives to legalize marijuana in various states are likely to be on the ballot in 2012.  Those committed to helping the people of Mexico and to defend human rights in the region should join us in supporting those initiatives.

In addition to advancing the movement to end marijuana prohibition, we must also open up a much broader drug policy debate that includes legal regulatory options for all drugs.  While regulatory options for more dangerous and addictive drugs may not be viable in the foreseeable future, we still need to seriously discuss and study these alternatives, because we will never be able to reduce demand enough to eliminate the crime and violence inherent in underground drug markets.

Both presidents Calderon and Obama have reluctantly acknowledged that legalization is a legitimate subject of debate. This provides proponents of legalization with an historic opportunity to open the debate to educate and sensitize people in the United States, Mexico and elsewhere about the extent to which current problems of violence, crime and corruption in Mexico are a result of failed prohibitionist policies.

The solution is not for the U.S. to crack down harder on drugs within its own borders.  Quite the opposite, the U.S. drug war at home is a costly disaster.  Rather the solution is to end prohibition, legally regulate drugs, treat drug addiction as a health issue, and remember that successful demand reduction mostly means reducing the demand among the heaviest users, which is best accomplished both by providing effective drug treatment and by allowing drug-addicted people to obtain the drugs they want or need from legal sources.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the failed drug war.  It is long past time to find an exit strategy to this unwinnable war.  Now is the time to put all options on the table.  Too many people have died to wait any longer.

Daniel Robelo is a research associate for the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of Legal Affairs.