Obama and the Lethal War on Drugs

The death toll in Tijuana, Mexico, is now higher than in Baghdad

With the global economy collapsing all around us, the last issue
President Barack Obama wants to talk about is the ongoing War on Drugs.
But if he doesn't - and fast - he may well have two collapsed and
haemorrhaging countries on his hands. The first lies in the distant
mountains of Afghanistan. The second is right next door, on the other
side of the Rio Grande.

Here's a starter for 10 about where this war has led us. Where in the world
are you most likely to be beheaded? Where are the severed craniums of police
officers being found week after week in the streets, pinned to bloody notes
that tell their colleagues, "this is so that you learn respect"?
Where are hand grenades being tossed into crowds to intimidate the public
into shutting up? Which country was just named by the US Joint Chiefs of
Staff as the most likely after Pakistan to suffer a "rapid and sudden

Most of us would guess Iraq. The answer is Mexico. The death toll in Tijuana
today is higher than in Baghdad. The story of how this came to happen is the
story of this war - and why it will have to end, soon.

When you criminalise a drug for which there is a large market, it doesn't
disappear. The trade is simply transferred from chemists and doctors to
gangs. In order to protect their patch and their supply routes, these gangs
tool up - and kill anyone who gets in their way. You can see this any day on
the streets of London or Los Angeles, where teen gangs stab or shoot each
other for control of the 3,000 per cent profit margins on offer. Now imagine
this process on a countrywide scale, and you have Mexico and Afghanistan

Drugs syndicates control 8 per cent of global GDP - which means they have
greater resources than many national armies. They own helicopters and
submarines and they can afford to spread the woodworm of corruption through
poor countries right to the top.

Why Mexico? Why now? In the past decade, the US has spent a fortune spraying
carcinogenic chemicals over Colombia's coca-growing areas, so the drug trade
has simply shifted to Mexico. It's known as the "balloon effect":
press down in one place, and the air rushes to another.

When I was last there in 2006, I saw the drug violence taking off and warned
that the murder rate was going to rocket - but I didn't imagine it would
reach this scale. In 2007, more than 2,000 people were killed. In 2008, it
was more than 5,400 people. The victims range from a pregnant woman washing
her car, to a four-year-old child, to a family in the "wrong"
house watching television. Today, 70 per cent of Mexicans say they are
frightened to go out because of the cartels.

The cartels offer Mexican police and politicians a choice: plato o plomo.
Silver or lead. Take a bribe, or take a bullet. Juan Camilo Mourino, the
Interior Secretary, admits the cartels have so corrupted the police they
can't guarantee the safety of the public any more. So the US is trying to
militarise the attack on the cartels in Mexico, offering tanks, helicopters
and hard cash.

The same process has happened in Afghanistan. After the toppling of the
Taliban, the country's bitterly poor farmers turned to the only cash crop
that earns them enough to keep their kids alive: opium. It now makes up 50
per cent of the country's GDP. The drug cartels have a bigger budget than
the elected government, so they have left the young parliament, police force
and army riddled with corruption and virtually useless. The US reacted by
declaring "war on opium".

The German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that the NATO commander has ordered
his troops to "kill all opium dealers". Seeing their main crop
destroyed and their families killed, many have turned back to the Taliban in

What is the alternative? Terry Nelson was one of America's leading federal
agents tackling drug cartels for over 30 years. He discovered the hard way
that the current tactics are useless. "Busting top traffickers doesn't
work, since others just do battle to replace them," he explains. But
there is another way: "Legalising and regulating drugs will stop drug
market violence by putting major cartels out of business. It's the one
sure-fire way to bankrupt them, but when will our leaders talk about it?"

Of course, the day after legalisation, a majority of gangsters will not
suddenly join the Hare Krishnas and open organic food shops. But their
profit margins will collapse as their customers go to off-licences and
chemists, so the incentives for staying in crime will largely end. We don't
have to speculate about this. When alcohol was legalised, the murder-rate
fell off a cliff - and continued to drop for the next 10 years. (Rates of
alcoholism, revealingly, remained the same.) No, Obama doesn't want to spend
his political capital on this. He is the third consecutive US President to
have used drugs in his youth, but he knows this is a difficult issue, where
he could be tarred by his opponents as "soft on crime".

Yet remember: opinions are febrile in a depression. At the birth of the last
great downturn, support for alcohol prohibition was high; within five years,
it was gone. The Harvard economist Professor Jeffrey Miron has calculated
that drug prohibition costs the US government $44.1bn per year - and
legalisation would raise another $32.7bn on top of that in taxes if drugs
were taxed like alcohol. (All this money would, in a sane world, be shifted
to drug treatment.)

Can the US afford to force this failing policy on the world - especially when
it guarantees the collapse both of the country they are occupying and their
own neighbour?

Drug addiction is always a tragedy for the addict - but drug prohibition
spreads the tragedy across the globe. We still have a chance to take drugs
back into the legal regulated economy, before it's too late for Mexico and
Afghanistan and graveyards-full of more stabbed kids on the streets of
Britain. Obama - and the rest of us - have to choose: controlled regulation
or violent prohibition? Healthcare or warfare?

To join the fight to legalise drugs, good organisations to join are Transform
or Stop the Drug War.

© 2023 The Independent