This article draws heavily from an amazing article on the September/October 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs. However, it also draws from other sources and offers some original thoughts and analysis.
On October 7, Mexico’s marines killed Heriberto “The Executioner” Lazcano in a gunfight. Some believe that it could be a major victory for Mexico. Indeed, 25 of the list of 37 suspected cartel leaders Mexico published in 2009 are out of commission, whether arrested, murdered, executed, or in prison.
Despite this, the war on drugs is foolish and costly. So far, all we have succeeded in doing is making America #1 in prison population and letting 50,000 Mexicans die since the escalation of the drug war in 2006. Mark Kleiman, editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis, explains:
Reforms that Don’t Work
- Legalization of hard drugs
Legalization of drugs, particularly of marijuana, has been gaining ground over the past couple years. While legalization of marijuana makes sense on both humanitarian and fiscal grounds, the picture is more ambiguous for hard drugs.
Legalization of marijuana can definitely place financial pressure on cartels, which rely on marijuana for as much as 40 percent of revenues. It would also substantially reduce prison populations. On the other hand, while legalizing hard drugs can increase access to critical health services such as needle exchanges and STD tests, it may not materially improve public health and might not prevent high-induced violent behavior.
- Drug Courts and Coerced Treatment
Another popular proposal is the use of drug courts to mandate treatment and imprison those who take the drug again during or after rehab. Many Americans agree that drug abuse should be treated primarily as a health problem rather than a criminal problem.
While coerced rehabilitation enforced by criminal penalties seems excellent in theory, it does not work as well in practice because it improperly mixes the treatment and punitive measures. This mixture makes it so that those who are most dependent on drug use are the most likely to be punished. Moreover, racial minorities and lower socioeconomic classes who are more likely to commit (violent) crime to fund their drug abuse are ineligible for drug courts, which undergo stringent background checks. As such, it is conceivable that drug courts sometimes lead to longer sentences than conventional criminal courts.
As a result, drug courts are likely to have mixed results and barely benefit the most dependent people who are responsible for most illicit drug use.
The best way to curb drugs and drug violence is fourfold:
- Target the most violence cartels and gangs. When tackling cartels, the aims shouldn't to be to arrest as many leaders as possible, it should be to decrease the level of violence. The best way to do so is to provide a "scorecard" that would identify the most violent cartels and severely crack down on them and only them.
At the same time, the most violent drug gangs in the U.S. should be aggressively attacked. However, it must also avoid making too many arrests, which would further burden overcrowded prisons.
These targeted actions against the most violent groups would not reduce the level of drug trafficking and might even increase violence in the short term by creating disturbances. However, in the long term, they would also considerably decrease the incentives for violence for both sides of the border, which would also increase public support for drug enforcement.
- Renew and revamp the assault weapons ban. Cartels get the lion's share of cheap, convenient weapons from the U.S. In 2010, 80 percent of confiscated assault weapons were traced back to the United States. This would gradually reduce the level of violence over time as ammunition and guns dry up. Of course, the new bill should address loopholes and all automatic weapons, and could even ban ownership of the weapons.
- Increase the compensation of U.S. border guards and law enforcement officials in Latin America. The U.S. can siphon off the enormous funds it uses to maintain its overcrowded prisons to help Mexico fund this. Because the wages of Mexican police officers are very low and their lives are overtly threatened by drug cartels, they have every incentive supplement their income and protect themselves and their families with corruption. Along with the reduction of violence that would accompany the two recommendations above, increased compensation would make enforcement significantly better.
- The HOPE program should be aggressively pursued. Kleiman elaborates:
Because Hawaii is far smaller and therefore imposes a smaller footprint on the government, the results in this program may not be easily replicated. This makes the implementation elsewhere expensive and a bureaucratic nightmare. It would be important for the administrators of successful pilot programs to advise other fledging ones throughout the nation.
The war on drugs has created severe problems throughout the Americas. In the U.S., it has triggered prison overpopulation and drug dealing violence without reducing the overall level of drug usage. In the Americas, cartels kill many civilians, law enforcement, and reformist politicians, and entrench corruption and crony governance, making it more difficult to solve other social and economic issues. Smart drug policy would help reduce both of these effects.