Drug Law

Only Way to Stop Mexico Drug Gangs is to Legalize Marijuana

| by Marijuana Policy Project

By Aaron Houston

Violence
in Mexico is getting worse by the day. There are reports of beheadings,
killings in the several thousands, and an environment of fear that makes it
impossible for Mexican officials to do their work. The country's very stability
may be threatened.

It's
time to put an end to U.S. policies that subsidize these murderous drug gangs.
The first step, as a growing chorus of voices is arguing, is to end the
quixotic policy of prohibition, a proven failure. But the United States can do
even better; by empowering a domestic marijuana industry, the United States
would squeeze Mexican cartels' profits, cutting off the financial lifeline that
sustains organized narcocrime.

According
to U.S. and Mexican officials, some 60 percent of the profits that fuel Mexican
narcotrafficking come from just one drug: marijuana. Although such estimates
are inherently imprecise, there is no doubt that marijuana is the cash cow that
makes these gangs the powerful, dangerous force they are -- both in Mexico and
in the 230 U.S. cities where cartels are thought to operate. The chief of the
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Mexico and Central America Section
recently told the New York Times that
marijuana is the "king
crop" for Mexican
cartels, because it "consistently
sustains its marketability and profitability."

Last
November, the U.S. Joint Forces Command warned in its "Joint Operating
Environment" report that Mexico "bear[s]
consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse" due to drug
cartel violence. Some critics saw the report as unduly dire, but at a minimum,
as outgoing CIA Director Michael Hayden warned, drug cartels "threaten ... the
well-being of the Mexican people and the Mexican state." A further
increase in instability would constitute a national security and humanitarian
crisis on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. For now, there is no end in
sight to the worsening violence and no adequate plan to address it.

This
appalling situation is not just happenstance. It is the direct result of prohibitionist
U.S. policies.

Like
it or not, marijuana is a massive industry. One hundred million Americans admit
to government survey-takers that they've used it, with nearly 15 million
acknowledging use in the past month. That's a huge market -- exceeding the
number of Americans who will buy a new car or truck this year, or who bought
one last year. Estimates based on U.S. government figures have pegged marijuana
as the No. 1 cash crop in the United States, with a value exceeding corn and
wheat combined.

Current
U.S. policies are based on the fantasy that Americans can somehow make this
massive industry go away. But prohibition hasn't stopped marijuana use. Although
marijuana use hits peaks and troughs over time, overall consumption of the drug
in the United States has risen roughly 4,000 percent rise since the first
national ban took effect in 1937. In other words, for 72 years, the U.S.
government has in effect granted criminals, including those brutal Mexican
gangs, a monopoly on production, distribution, and profits.

The
solution is already apparent: Make marijuana a legal, regulated product like
alcohol and tobacco are. After all, there's a reason these gangs aren't
smuggling wine grapes. When you have a legal, regulated market for a product,
the underground market disappears. Indeed, the United States already has an
illustrative example from its own history. During the 13 dark years of alcohol prohibition,
drinking didn't stop, but gangsters such as Al Capone got rich. When Prohibition
ended, the bootleggers -- and the orgy of violence that accompanied them --
went away. By taking marijuana out of the criminal underground and regulating it,
Americans can cut the lifeline that gives Mexican drug gangs their power.

There
are benefits for the United States, too. For the first time, regulators would
have a level of control over marijuana production and distribution, both of
which are impossible under today's system. Over time, the domestic marijuana
industry would start to look like California's wine business: a responsible
industry that adds to the state's prestige, tourism, and tax coffers, rather
than a source of violence and instability.

Critics have already
started to object, claiming that such a move would set off a surge of marijuana
use. But in the Netherlands -- where adults have been permitted to
possess and purchase small amounts of marijuana from regulated businesses since
the mid-1970s -- the rate of marijuana use is less than half that of the United
States, according to a recent World Health Organization study. More
importantly, the percentage of teens trying marijuana by age 15 in the
Netherlands is roughly one third the U.S. rate. Indeed, a 2001 National
Research Council report commissioned by the White House found "little
apparent relationship" between criminal penalties for drug use and the
prevalence or frequency of use.

Most
everyone can agree on one thing: The situation today is intolerable. Three
former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil have recently joined the call
for the decriminalization of marijuana in its largest market, the United
States. Mainstream commentators, editorial boards, and members of U.S. Congress
have begun to join in. The momentum has shifted, and a solution is at the world's
fingertips.

What's
needed is the political courage to grasp it. (Aaron Houston is
director of government relations for the Marijuana
Policy Project
.)

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