Commentary

Strung Out: Prohibition Stays Put South of the Border

Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, has succumbed to pressure from Washington and refused to sign the reform measure on illegal drugs that the Mexican congress had passed. That legislation would have decriminalized the possession of small quantities of illegal drugs. Mexico seemed poised to join the ranks of the Netherlands and a few other countries that have abandoned the zero-tolerance model embraced by the United States. Under the proposed law, possession of up to 25 milligrams of heroin, 5 grams of marijuana (about four joints), or 0.5 grams of cocaine (about 4 “lines”) for personal use would no longer have been a criminal offense. Small quantities of other drugs, such as peyote or amphetamines, would have been treated in the same fashion.

Once again, the United States proves to be the bully of the Western Hemisphere when it comes to the war on drugs. Washington will not tolerate even the slightest deviation from a prohibitionist policy. Any Latin American country that flirts with reform risks Washington’s wrath and the explicit or implicit threat of economic and political retaliation. Mexico is the latest victim of that intolerance.

Ironically, the legislation was only a modest step in the right direction. One of the more odious features of the war on drugs around the world is the practice of filling the jails with small-time (often recreational) drug users. Mexican legislators merely proposed to end that cruel folly in their country.

Indeed, the real problem with the limited decriminalization measure is that it did not go nearly far enough. It did not get to the root of the growing incidence of drug-related corruption and violence in Mexico.

Both problems have reached epidemic proportions. There have been numerous cases of police personnel moonlighting as security forces for drug-trafficking organizations. Prominent officials tasked with implementing anti-drug laws have been caught taking bribes from drug kingpins. Even the Catholic Church has acknowledged that some of the charitable contributions it takes in come from drug trafficking.

Violence connected with the illegal-drug trade has been on the rise for several years in Mexico. Such cities as Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, and Nuevo Laredo have been especially hard hit. Nearly a thousand people perished in killings connected with the drug trade in 2005. Some Mexicans now worry that their country is spiraling down into a maelstrom of violence similar to that which afflicted Colombia during the late 1980s and the 1990s.

And the violence is no longer confined to Mexico. Political officials in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and California complain that drug-related killings are spilling over the border into their states. Mexican drug gangs operate openly in a number of southwestern U.S. cities.

Most of the corruption and violence is caused by the enormous black-market premium in the illicit-drug trade. The risk factor involved in defying the law means that drugs sell on the street for ten to twenty times more than they would in a legal setting. An aggressive trafficking organization can make tens—or even hundreds—of millions of dollars a year. That huge financial lure attracts those people who are most inclined to risk jail or death in a cutthroat trade—in other words, the most ruthless and violence-prone elements.

Unfortunately, even the Mexican reformers showed no willingness to legalize the production or sale of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or other drugs to deflate the black-market premium. Indeed, they argued that the decriminalization measure would enable law-enforcement agencies to devote more personnel and resources to suppressing trafficking. The basic prohibitionist strategy would have remained intact. The vast potential profit in the drug trade would persist—and so would the corruption and violence that is tearing Mexico’s society apart.

Decriminalizing the possession of small quantities of drugs was a modest sign of enlightenment. But Mexico (like other countries) needs to abandon the entire prohibition model to produce truly meaningful benefits. Unfortunately, given Washington’s fanaticism on the subject, the prospects for intelligent reform anytime soon are virtually nonexistent. President Fox’s capitulation to U.S. pressure demonstrates that point all too well.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies, is author of seven books on international affairs, including Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America.