By Paolo von Schirach
October 22, 2011
WASHINGTON – The US war on terror, (although no longer named this way), registered significant tactical successes. Osama bin Laden and other high profile al Qaeda leaders have been targeted and killed. While it is impossible to estimate the residual operational capabilities of a decentralized outfit like al Qaeda, it may be safe to assume that its ability to mount a major attack, on the scale of 9/11, may have been significantly reduced. Of course, there is plenty to argue about the cost of getting to this point. If we add a protracted war in Afghanistan, a 9 year occupation of Iraq and a lot more, one wonders if the trillion dollars plus efforts was justified. Still, there is some success in these counter terror activities.
War on drugs is a total failure
But if we look at the parallel war on drugs, this is an unmitigated disaster. The ongoing effort to stop or substantially curtail the introduction of illegal drugs into the US is an expensive and futile effort. Huge US law enforcement resources are deployed all over: in drug producing countries, at the border and within the US. Still, there is not much to show for any of this. Drugs are still available and affordable almost everywhere in America.
In Mexico gang warfare caused 40,000 dead
Across the border, in Mexico, the extremely profitable business of shipping massive quantities of drugs into the buoyant US market has created large organized crime gangs that now fight one another for territory and market share. The result is mayhem. More than 40,000 people have been killed in a prolonged war among various cartels fighting for control of the drug business. That’s almost ten times the total US casualties in the nasty and costly war in Iraq.
Legalize drugs, says former Mexican president Vicente Fox
And yet, there is a way out of this mess. Legalize drugs. By legalizing them, the US government would eliminate the advantage of criminal organizations that now are the only vehicles to supply narcotics to willing consumers. Many eminent former policy makers have already said this.
But now former Mexican President Vicente Fox added his voice to this plea. In a recent speech to the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington DC, Fox advocated the legalization of narcotics consumption: “My proposal is to legalize completely all drugs and the whole chain of production: the farming or production in factories; the distribution; the selling; and the collecting of the money……I don’t see anything wrong [with legalizing all drugs]. The figures I have is that, in Mexico, not more than a thousand people, not more, die from an overdose of drugs of whichever drug. In exchange, tens of thousands of people die from drinking alcohol in excess or die from smoking [tobacco] and getting cancer.”
Treat drugs as a medical problem
Fox’s point is not that drugs are harmless. They are not. His point is that criminalizing drug use has done nothing to diminish demand or consumption here in the US, while it has nurtured enormous criminal enterprises that have caused huge damage in Mexico and beyond. Drug abuse is a medical problem, it should not be about law enforcement.
Prohibition was the same mistake
It is interesting that this plea from the former Mexican president comes right at the time of the airing on American Public Television, (PBS TV), of the Ken Burns documentary ”Prohibition”. Prohibition was an incredibly ambitious and, in the end, extremely stupid idea. The whole project stemmed from a common sense observation: alcohol abuse is extremely harmful. But the notion that in order to eliminate the ravaging effects of alcohol abuse the best policy would be to ban alcohol was truly stupid.
People wanted it and large criminal organizations supplied it. So, prohibition failed in its basic intent –force people to stop drinking– while it unintentionally fueled violent criminal enterprises that caused great harm to the American society. With all their wealth the criminals also bought public officials and judges, this way spreading corruption. Legalizing alcohol again was not an endorsement of alcoholism. It was the recognition that it was impossible to eliminate alcohol abuse by making drinking illegal.
Legalise drugs and the criminal outfits will be out of business
And this Fox’s basic point. In Mexico drug consumption is legal. The whole drugs related criminal problem in Mexico is about Mexican cartels organized to sell drugs to the US. There is big business for underground criminal organizations because in the US drugs cannot be traded freely. This huge US market for an illegal product that can only be supplied through Mexico based illegal channels is the problem.
America may soon get to legalizing drugs
Will America get to the point of legalizing drugs? I think so. May be not now. But soon enough. And this is not because the science has changed. It is an incontrovertible fact that drug abuse is bad and often deadly. But soon enough policy makers will simply have to acknowledge that criminalizing drugs simply made the problem worse.
After all these years of valiant law enforcement efforts, we still have a major drug abuse problem in America, while we have large criminal organizations in Mexico and in the US feeding on this illegal trade. All this means violence, dead people and the break down of law and order, since these gangs can pay very good money to public officials so that they will look the other way. Vicente Fox’s point is simple: drug abuse, just like alcohol abuse, should be treated as a medical problem, not as a matter of jail time.