It’s Time for a New Era of Drug Policy

By Iona Volynets

USCG crew unloads marijuana that was seized southwest of San Diego
Photo Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Henry Dunphy/DVIDS

The drug trade between Mexico and the US fuels suffering on both sides of the border.

On the Mexican side, the prominence of cartels that profit from smuggling drugs between Central America and the United States has caused tens of thousands of deaths. Since 2006, violence by drug-trafficking related organizations has killed 60,000 people, with more than 26,000 missing. 

These cartels thrive off money gained from the American black market for drugs, using profits to effectively conquer and control cities. In Mexico, cartels collectively are one of the biggest industries in the country and outnumber the police by several tens of thousands of people.

Further north, the epidemic of addiction and overdose (which claimed more than 81,000 American lives last year) is due in part to drugs like cocaine, methamphetamines, and fentanyl coming over the border. DEA statistics show that almost 50% of heroin sold in the United States is produced in Mexico, and almost all of it is supplied by Mexican cartels. These organizations’ presence is not limited to Latin American nations, either. It is estimated that Mexican drug traffickers operate in more than 1,200 American cities

Drug cartels in Central America also fuel immigration to the US as people flee from cartel violence. Since the creation of the DHS in 2003, the United States has spent hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on border security and enforcement of immigration laws in the interior. 

Cartels across Central America were created in part due to American policies and intervention, another reason why foreign cartels are a problem for America at home and abroad. 

The American public agrees. A 2011 Gallup poll found that a full 84% of Americans think what happens in Mexico is either “vitally important” or “important but not vital” to the United States. The trans-American drug trade is a pressing issue impacting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across the continent, and it must be addressed. 

The response on both sides of the border has been one of violent enforcement known as “The War on Drugs” in America. It was declared in 1971 in the US and in 2006 in Mexico, marking 50 years of this approach in 2021. 

It has been an unequivocal failure. Cartel-related violence has increased every year since the war on drugs started, and civil society groups accuse security forces of hurting civilians as much as cartels.

Since President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1971, overdose deaths rose, mass incarceration destroyed communities, and law enforcement efforts against drugs contributed to police violence. 

Today, almost half of the 186,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons in the United States are there on drug‐ related charges. This population is disproportionately Black and Latino, despite studies that show that these populations sell and use drugs at similar rates to the white population in the US. 

While failing to address drug abuse and fomenting mass incarceration and racial disparities, the war on drugs has also been a drain on government resources, costing taxpayers over billions annually and amounting to over $1 trillion in government spending in the last 40 years. 

On the Mexican side, there have been more than 270,000 homicides since the nation’s armed forces mobilized in 2006, many of them linked to cartels. Violence has also risen over time- drug related deaths rose from 2,000 per year to 11,000 per year between 2006 and 2010. 

Former Mexican president Vincente Fox and current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador have both been critical of the war on drugs, acknowledging that it has failed to address cartel-related violence. 

A law-enforcement oriented war on drugs has not only failed to address addiction and overdose, it has fueled the rise of cartel violence. It is clear that this approach has failed, begging the question: what else can America do?

One solution could potentially be the legalization of all drugs, a policy that has long been outside of the Overton window. While endorsed by political figures abroad like Vincente Fox, it remains a policy on the fringes of the American foreign policy debate. It’s time for this to end. 

The rise in overdoses and the strength of the cartels can both be attributed in part to the current prohibitionist drug policy. Prohibition raises drug prices by decreasing supply. While this may sound good at first glance (wouldn’t higher drug prices reduce drug consumption?), there are a slew of negative consequences. Raising drug prices pushes people towards harder drugs and increases the risk of disease transmission, as people seek high-intensity methods of use like injection.

Prohibition also inevitably results in a black market, in which the flow of information is opaque and quality or safety are unreliable. Unlike in a regulated market, consumers have little guarantee they will know what they are consuming and its side effects. This promotes addiction and overdose. 

This black market also creates the perfect conditions for the violence ravaging the Americas. The illegal nature of drug distribution makes it an inherently risky business, weeding out suppliers who are more averse to the danger, corruption, and violence that are often a part of the job. 

This leaves parties who are comfortable with violence, an attractive option when no legal pathways are available. This pattern has held up throughout history- alcohol prohibition in the United States led to the rise of violent gangs in major US cities. Chinese opium gangs rose in response to early opium prohibition efforts. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Colombian cartels controlled cocaine distribution into the United States. Today’s Mexican cartels are no different. Black markets encourage violence and strengthen organized crime. 

For these reasons, prohibition is seen by many as a policy failure. In response, an increasingly vocal and mainstream idea has become decriminalization, a policy which would hypothetically aid those struggling with abuse and addiction more than our current carceral system. 

This approach shows promise. It’s been tried in countries like Portugal, the Netherlands, and Switzerland with positive results. In Portugal, there has been a decrease in overdose and prison crowding without a long-term increase in drug usage. 

However, while decriminalization may help drug users, it does not go far enough to prevent drug-trafficking related violence. While those using drugs do not face criminal penalties, those selling drugs do. As a result, there continues to be an underground unregulated market, resulting in many of the same issues of unreliable drug quality and safety, a lack of trustworthy information, and rampant violence

Only full legalization could create above-the-board markets subject to regulation and eliminate the need for violence. Therefore, legalization, not decriminalization, is the domestic drug policy with the greatest potential to help reduce cartel prominence and violence. 

Within legalization, there are two potential routes: legalization with commercialization and legalization without it. Legalization with commercialization allows for a minimally regulated free market. Under legalization without commercialization, branding and advertising are banned. Alternatively, local, state, or federal governments control the production and sale of the drug. 

Both have their issues. Legalization with commercialization could lead to greater abuse through marketing and easy availability. On the other hand, legalization without commercialization leaves room for illicit markets that can result in violence and do not guarantee drug purity. 

The recent legalization (with commercialization) of marijuana in several US states presents a potential case study. Following full legalization in six states in FY 2014, the rate of marijuana seized  at the southern border declined by 78%  and the overall quantity of marijuana seized decreased by 2 million pounds. Customs and Border Patrol themselves hypothesize this decrease could be due to the legalization of marijuana. 

Legalization’s critics, however, levy a strong case. They point to the fact that while cocaine trade through Mexico has fallen, violence has risen. Many argue that cartels have diversified from being primarily drug traffickers, gaining revenue and power from a diverse array of illicit activities. Legalization, thus, would do little to reduce the violence in Latin America pushing thousands of asylum seekers to the American border. 

Furthermore, they claim, legalization would domestically increase drug experimentation, use, and abuse, potentially exacerbating the epidemic of addiction.

This claim shouldn’t be taken lightly. After Portugal’s decriminalization policy went into effect, drug experimentation and homicide increased sharply before falling after the first five years. Anti-legalization concerns are valid and often backed by strong evidence. However, the same could be said of the concerns surrounding our current prohibitionist policy. 

Drug legalization is not a magical cure for the foreign policy issues at hand, which include the presence of violent cartels in the US, an American addiction and overdose epidemic fueled by foreign-grown drugs, drug smuggling over the Mexican-American border, and an influx of immigrants fleeing cartel violence that has resulted in a polarizing domestic debate.

It will not abolish these issues overnight, nor is it likely to eradicate them over time. It is a complex, risky, and relatively novel policy. 

However, given the failure of the past decades of drug policy and the evidence pointing towards the potentially transformative nature of legalization, it’s a policy that deserves to be taken seriously in the world of American foreign policy. 

Iona Volynets is a writer for the Review. She majors in International Relations and History at Syracuse University. 

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