Will Legalizing Pot Put An End to Mexico's Massacres?
In the past five years, the brutal drug wars on our border have resulted in more casualties than our decade-long war in Iraq. Is there any way to curb this carnage? Legalizing marijuana might be a good start.
The carnage has continued for so long that we are almost immune to the horror by now: the drug war in Mexico has raged out of control for what feels like a lifetime. Many cities south of the border are war zones. In the border town of Juarez, for example, corpses are piling up daily and the sight of decapitated heads, bullet-riddled cars, and blood literally running in the streets has become commonplace for terrified citizens who are living under siege conditions there. The violence is spreading: 25 bodies were recently discovered in the tourist magnet of Acapulco—15 of them without heads—with notes pinned to them claiming responsibility for he massacre on behalf of the Sinola cartel. Drug cartels are also suspected in the recent murder of 59-year-old American missionary Nancy Davis—who was shot in the head south of the Mexican border city of Reynosa—and in the recent murders of two teenaged Americans in Juarez. In 2009, Mexican drug suspect Santiago Meza claimed to have dissolved over 300 bodies in an acid baths on the outskirts of Tijuana, earning him the gruesome moniker “El Pozolero—The Stew Maker.” He claims the cartels paid him $600 a week to dispose of the corpses of rival gang members.
Mexican president Felipe Calderón’s efforts to fight the cartels is seemingly plunging his country to the brink of anarchy, resulting in a death toll of over 34,612—15,273 in 2010 alone—since Calderón started his push to bring down the cartels in 2006. The fight against the drug cartels has destabilized the country to such an extent that many, including former U.S. anti-drug czar and former U.S. Army general Barry McCaffrey, are openly expressing the fear that Mexico will soon turn in to a “narco-state” just like 1990’s era Columbia. It is a situation that has had serious consequences north of the border as well. The violence routinely spills over into American border towns resulting in a spate of kidnapping and murders that have law enforcement agencies on edge. (The nation took notice last year when anti-immigrant fervor linked to the rise in drug related criminality in Arizona culminated in governor Jann Brewer’s notorious anti-illegal immigration bill.)
When you read about the lawlessness in Mexico—the routine of murders, car bombs, government corruption on every level, decapitations, bribery and mass graves—it seems hard to believe that the majority of the money that fuels this anarchy comes from marijuana exportation. Mexico is the world’s biggest exporter of marijuana, with a U.S. State Department report claiming that over 30,000 acres of Mexican soil is given over to marijuana crops.
Compare and contrast this with what is happening north of the border. Currently medical marijuana is legal in 16 states, with seven of those states—California, Colorado, New Mexico, Maine, Rhode Island, Montana, and Michigan—actually allowing marijuana to be sold via dispensaries. Despite years of deliberate misinformation by successive U.S. governments—a sad tradition started by the granddaddy of the modern war on drugs, Harry J. Ainslinger, the first man to hold the post as Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics—marijuana is becoming slowly recognized as, at worst, a relatively harmless intoxicant and, at best, a potentially revolutionary therapeutic tool. The chorus of prominent Americans calling for liberalization of the marijuana laws includes such strange bedfellows as Newt Gingrich, Zach Galifianakis, Congressman Barney Frank, televangelist Pat Robertson, and TV personality Montel Williams. Publicly supporting the cause of marijuana legalization has long been considered career suicide for lawmakers yet slowly we are seeing more mainstream voices coming forward and cautiously expressing a view that years ago would have seemed unfathomable. Former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders said on CNN in October of last year, “Marijuana has never caused anybody directly to die. It’s not a toxic substance…We can use our resources so much better. I think we need to legalize marijuana for adults, and tax it so we can use the money for much better things.”
So far, the massive influx of American cash poured into the anti-marijuana war has barely made a dent. U.S. taxpayers have so far invested $1.4 billion dollars in the Mexican drug war via the Merida Initiative and are supposedly considering a “substantial increase” in this already staggering level of financial support. While traditionally anti-marijuana sentiment by the voters has made talk of legalization a forbidden topic for career-minded politicians, it seems that the tide is turning. This has been prompted no doubt by the financial waste associated with marijuana suppression. In California, where legal marijuana requires little more than a note from a specialist doctor, marijuana exists in a strange, quasi-legal limbo. Although it is controlled by the state, requirements to qualify for the program are hardly stiff. California state law says that any medical condition that “substantially limits the ability of the person to conduct one or more major life activities” can be treated with a marijuana prescription.
This has resulted in a booming business of doctors willing to prescribe marijuana for ailments like writer’s cramp and obesity (especially ironic given marijuana’s ability to increase appetite in users). Just check the back pages of the LA Weekly—right next to the ads for “private escorts,” you will find countless doctors competing to serve your marijuana related needs. While this enrages the anti-marijuana contingent, it makes perfect sense—after all, potentially fatal substances like acetaminophen, alcohol and tobacco are sold virtually without control to any adult who wants them. The idea that something as benign as cannabis sativa—a drug with no addictive qualities and no ability to cause a fatal overdose—even requires a prescription borders on the laughable.
A Gallup poll conducted prior to California’s proposition 9 vote—the defeated measure to fully legalize marijuana in California—shows that 46 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization. To put it in context, that’s more Americans in favor of pot legalization than were supportive of President Obama’s job performance pre-Osama news.
With the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that the Mexican cartels derive 60% of their profits from marijuana exportation, surely the time has come for the U.S. government to rethink their policy on marijuana prohibition. The facts speak for themselves—we currently pour billions of dollars into not only fighting our own “war on drugs,” a war which been proven by history to be as ineffective as it has been expensive, but now we are also funding a war on drugs in Mexico that has proved to be an even bloodier and more extreme failure than our own. At the moment, the drug war in Mexico is a mere 4,000 deaths away from overtaking the combined Mexican and US casualties from the Mexican-American war of 1846-1848 (estimates put the death toll of that conflict at around 38,780).
The biggest favor the U.S. government could do for Mexico would be to take away the drug cartels biggest profit maker and allow Calderón’s troop to focus on methamphetamines, the cartel’s second biggest source of income. At the moment, we have the worst of two worlds in America—prohibitionists are unhappy because in 16 states, people can legally consume marijuana with a doctor’s okay. Yet to the dismay of everyone else, while marijuana still remains illegal nationally, prisons are still being filled to capacity with non-violent drug offenders while police are forced to waste valuable time and resources arresting marijuana users. In the meantime, the government continues to fritter away billions of dollars a year to suppress an herb that’s widely agreed to be less harmful to the general public than alcohol or tobacco. Even if we are to take seriously that most tenuous and discredited of all anti-marijuana lines—the “gateway theory”—marijuana legalization still seems like the most logical solution. After all, if we don’t want people “graduating” from soft drugs like marijuana to harder drugs, then surely the first logical step would be to limit marijuana users interaction with the black market altogether.
There’s an old slogan that people throw about in recovery circles (it’s even used in the basic text of Narcotics Anonymous): “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” In that context, it’s supposed to help the addict see the madness of thinking that they can control their drug use. However it’s easy to see how this mantra could be just as appropriately applied to America’s maddening “war without end”—a battle that continues to exact a terrible toll the harder we try to fight it.
Tony O'Neill is the author of several novels, including Digging the Vein and Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. O'Neill also interviewed Jerry Stahl and argued against abstinence for The Fix.