The Human Cost of America’s Drug War

February 2, 2009

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The large and growing problem of drug-related violence on the southern U.S. border has finally seeped into the news cycle.  The U.S. State Department has issued warnings for Americans traveling in Mexico.  Tourism to border cities—a critical source of revenue for already depressed communities—is down significantly.  And the number of violent incidents which actually occur on U.S. soil has grown alarmingly.

A new study by Cato Institute Vice President Ted Galen Carpenter questions why, in the face of this spiraling crisis, U.S. and Mexican officials are poised to pour millions more dollars into prohibition policies which have only succeeded in fanning the flames of violence.

Washington, alarmed at the growing power of the Mexican drug cartels, has pressured the government of Felipe Calderón to wage a more vigorous anti-drug campaign. Calderón has responded by giving the army the lead role in efforts to eliminate the drug traffickers instead of relying on federal and local police forces, which have been thoroughly corrupted by drug money. Washington has rewarded Calderón’s government by implementing the initial stage of the so-called Mérida Initiative. In June 2008, Congress approved a $400 million installment modeled on Plan Colombia, the anti-drug assistance measure for Colombia and other drug-source countries in the Andean region. That program, now in its ninth year, has already cost more than $5 billion, without significantly reducing the flow of drugs coming out of South America. The Mérida Initiative will likely cost billions and be equally ineffectual.

Abandoning the prohibitionist model of dealing with the drug problem is the only effective way to stem the violence in Mexico and its spillover into the U.S. , Carpenter’s study finds. Other proposed solutions, including preventing the flow of guns from the U.S. to Mexico , establishing tighter control over the border, and (somehow) winning the war on drugs are futile. As long as the prohibitionist strategy is in place, the huge black market premium in illegal drugs will continue, and the lure of that profit, together with the illegality, guarantees that the most ruthless, violence-prone elements will dominate the trade. Ending drug prohibition would de-fund the criminal trafficking organizations and reduce their power.

Click here to read the entire paper.