“Three Amigos” Meet, Drugs on the Agenda

The presidents of Mexico and the United States and the prime minister of Canada are meeting today in Guadalajara. One of the many things they’ll discuss will be cross-border drug trafficking and the violence that accompanies it. Although swine flu is making the headlines, most Americans probably don’t know that drug violence has killed many times more people than the attention-grabbing epidemic.

Who knew this presumably important fact? The well-informed readers of Cato Unbound, that’s who. (Swine flu has killed 1,154 worldwide; since 2006, drug violence has killed more than ten thousand in Mexico alone.)

This month’s lead essayist, former Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castañeda, complains of “A U.S. War with Mexican Consequences.” He notes that we in the United States have a greater taste than Mexicans for both illegal drugs and prohibition. And we have a disturbing tendency to export the consequences of those tastes to Mexico. Without the United States, there would scarcely be a Mexican drug problem. Many policies offered as solutions aren’t working. In particular, militarization is a dangerous step that has worked out badly in other Latin American countries; a U.S. military presence would be politically unpopular and would not be tolerated in Mexico. Mexico pursuing drug decriminalization is just as unpopular in the United States; American governments have worked hard to keep decriminalization off the Mexican political agenda.

Journalist and Latin American affairs expert Stephanie Hanson of the Council on Foreign Relations responds that both countries should consider decriminalization of marijuana and possibly of harder drugs as well. It may be time, she suggests, to admit that prohibition isn’t working, at least as it’s been practiced so far. She points to experiments conducted in the Netherlands, Portugal, and — for those not as well-informed — the experiment in the fictional Baltimore of The Wire, where decriminalization offered a measure of calm, albeit only for one episode.

Another expert in the area, James Roberts of the Heritage Foundation, suggests otherwise. Drug decriminalization and/or legalization will also ruin lives and kill people, just as prohibition has done, except this time it will be done with the support of our governments. Rather than give in to the drug cartels, he recommends fighting them every step of the way. In any event, decriminalization is never going to succeed politically in the United States, so we’re better off with a vigorous, effective prohibition than a halfhearted one.

Tomorrow we’ll hear from Cato’s own Ted Galen Carpenter, an expert with yet another view of the situation. A discussion will follow over the next few weeks and, given the diversity of views, it will no doubt be an interesting one.