We have sought to demonstrate that the term “Mexican Drug War” is a misnomer, as the phenomenon to which it refers was a joint construction by Mexico and the United States, erected over the last hundred years. If that’s true, then it suggests that ending the “war” would likely require a joint effort from both sides of the border. Are there any signs of this happening?
Actually, there are. Over the past twenty years a conviction has been growing that the prohibitionist policy officially enforced by both nations is deeply flawed and should be modified or repealed. At first, this dissent was voiced by a very few. It was difficult, even dangerous, to challenge the widely held (and strongly policed) consensus. Interdiction of supply and incarceration of users were deemed the best ways, the only acceptable ways, to deal with the growing use of narcotics in the United States. But slowly, step by modest step, then with accelerating speed and growing support as the costly and often horrible consequences of reigning policy became ever more apparent in both countries, a campaign got underway to breach the ramparts of the War on Drugs regime.
Some key moments in this campaign:
1996: Californians adopted Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, which legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The local activists who promoted this initiative attacked the prohibitionist forces at their least defensible position—the Anslinger characterization of cannabis as a deadly menace—and they promoted pot’s decriminalization, not for recreational use, but for the relatively unimpeachable purpose of treating cancer and AIDS patients. The new state law could not, however, supersede federal law, and federal authorities under Clinton, Bush, and (despite campaign promises to the contrary) Obama did their best to thwart the spread of state-legalized suppliers through lawsuits, civil injunctions, DEA and SWAT team raids, and enormous numbers of arrests. Despite this, the California victory triggered a chain reaction across the country; thus far, twenty-three states, plus the District of Columbia, have legalized cannabis for therapeutic purposes.
2006: With the clock counting down on his sexenio, President Vicente Fox, theretofore a stalwart promoter of the state’s war on drug traffickers, signaled a change of heart and mind by signing legislation that legalized possession of small quantities of narcotics or psychoactives. The new law barred police from penalizing people for carrying up to five grams of marijuana, five grams of opium, twenty-five milligrams of heroin, or five hundred milligrams of cocaine—enough for a few lines—or limited quantities of LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms, amphetamines, Ecstasy, or peyote. Given that local consumption of any of these was still quite small in Mexico—alcohol remained the overwhelming drug of choice—this measure would not have had much impact beyond the symbolic. It was, after all, gringos who were the big buyers, and the U.S. seemed hardly likely to follow Fox’s lead. Quite the reverse: Washington came down on Fox heavily, in a campaign reminiscent of Anslinger’s back in the 1930s. The DEA got on the horn to its Mexican counterparts—pointing out, among other things, that its major effect would likely be to send hordes of collegiate spring-breakers pouring across the border to toke up, thus making a hash of efforts to suppress drug use stateside. Within a week, Fox was forced to back down.
2009: In February, Fox’s predecessor Ernesto Zedillo, together with former presidents of Colombia and Brazil, convened and co-chaired a commission of Latin American intellectuals and political leaders, which produced a position paper—Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift—that cautiously dissented from the status quo. “Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results,” they said. Instead, “the ‘war on drugs’ strategy pursued in the region over the past thirty years” had led to the “corruption of public servants, the judicial system, governments, the political system, and especially the police forces.” It was imperative to break the “taboo” on criticism, because acknowledging the failure of “U.S. prohibitionist policies” was the prerequisite for adopting “a new paradigm leading to safer, more efficient and humane drug policies,” like those adopted by some European countries, which had changed the status of addicts “from drug buyers in the illegal market to that of patients cared for in the public health system.”
One of Europe’s poster countries for this approach was Portugal. Hearkening back to Salazar Viniegra’s program in 1930s Mexico, the nation by 2001 had “decriminalized” all illicit drugs. Their possession and use remained illegal, but violations were treated as administrative infractions, and users were channeled not to jail but into “dissuasion” sessions, or if struggling with drug dependency were offered therapeutic services. Opponents forecast nightmarish consequences, like a dramatic surge in drug use, which failed to appear. Instead, drug-related pathologies (for example, HIV infection from needles) declined, partly through education campaigns and partly because fear of arrest in the era before decriminalization had hindered addicts from seeking help. Analysts called it a “resounding success,” not least for having dramatically reduced the burdens on the criminal justice system.
Also in 2009, President Calderón himself advanced and won passage of a similar decriminalization bill. It allowed the personal use of small drug amounts, though it still banned cultivation and sale. It also unleashed local police to pursue neighborhood dealers (targets previously reserved for federal authorities), providing a rich new field for corrupt cops to exploit. Calderón justified it as a wartime measure that would allow federal forces to redirect resources from small-time consumers to big-time dealers and their drug lord bosses. Here, too, there was no immediate effect on drug use, belying the scare stories that youths would rush for the nearest syringe.
2010: Californians again debated a drug-related ballot initiative, Proposition 19, also known as the Regulate, Control & Tax Cannabis Act. It would have legalized possession and use of small amounts of marijuana, the home-growing of a modest private stash, and the licensing of commercial cultivators and retail distributors. Supporters of Proposition 19 argued that taxes would allow California to harvest $1.4 billion annually in badly needed revenue (the Great Recession being in full swing), save tens of millions wasted on incarcerating nonviolent users, and free police to catch serious criminals.
It would also, some argued, cut off a significant flow of funds to Mexico’s violent drug cartels and allow California’s southern neighbor to redirect law-enforcement resources to more dangerous crimes like kidnapping and extortion. There were wildly varying estimates of how much marijuana prices might fall upon legalization and regulation. If the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimate (as of 2009) was correct, and over half of cartel revenues came from the sale of marijuana to U.S. consumers, a significant chunk of their business would evaporate, and with it the tremendous profits with which they funded recruitment, arms purchases, and bribes.
Calderón nevertheless vigorously opposed Proposition 19, and suggested any softening of the U.S. stance toward drug consumption would undercut his efforts to control organized crime groups in Mexico. Vicente Fox disagreed (there was no love lost between these two PANistas) and said passage of Proposition 19 would be a “great step forward” and could “open the door to these ideas for us.” Mexico should legalize the entire production chain, Fox argued, allowing farmers to produce marijuana, manufacturers to process it, distributors to distribute it, and shops to sell it. Throwing off the prohibitionist shackles should be seen as “a strategy to strike at and break the economic structure that allows gangs to generate huge profits in their trade, which feeds corruption and increases their areas of power.”
Jorge Castañeda, a former Mexican foreign minister and a proponent of legalization, coauthored a Washington Post op-ed piece saying that passage of Proposition 19 would make war-as-usual untenable: “If California legalizes marijuana, will it be viable for our country to continue hunting down drug lords in Tijuana? Will Wild West–style shootouts to stop Mexican cannabis from crossing the border make any sense when, just over that border, the local 7-Eleven sells pot?” The point was mooted, momentarily, when the proposition was defeated with 53.5 percent of California voters voting “No”—but 46.5 percent had voted “Yes.”
2011: In June the Global Commission on Drug Policy, an expanded version of the 2009 Latin American–only operation, appeared on the scene. It, too, featured a bevy of former Latin American presidents, including Ernesto Zedillo, and distinguished Latin American cultural figures such as Carlos Fuentes. But it also included “formers” from the United States—including former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Federal Reserve Bank chair Paul Volcker—as well as former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. The report they issued was considerably more forthright than its predecessor’s, its palpable sense of urgency in large part a reflection of Mexico’s soaring death rate.
“The global war on drugs has failed,” the commissioners declared flatly, “with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.” It had exacerbated “violence, crime and corruption in Latin America.” Its “vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers” had “clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption.” Repression of consumers had impeded public health measures to reduce HIV/AIDS and overdose fatalities. Budgets of the state and local governments had been busted to pay for prison systems and tens of thousands of law enforcement agents.
Recommending a sharp U-turn, they proposed: ending the “criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others”; modifying mandatory sentencing laws and removing penalties for the possession of small amounts of drugs; and experimenting with regulated commodity markets to undermine the power of organized crime—starting with, but not limited to, cannabis. Harm reduction campaigns should be expanded, but should eschew simplistic “just say no” messages and “zero tolerance” policies in favor of educational efforts grounded in credible information. The flawed scheduling of cannabis, coca leaf, and Ecstasy as dangerous drugs should be revised. The commissioners also urged ending the incarceration of millions—not just end-users, but farmers, couriers, and petty sellers, many themselves victims of violence and intimidation, or drug dependent, or seeking to escape poverty. Prohibition was a policy that “has filled prisons and destroyed lives and families without reducing the availability of illicit drugs or the power of criminal organizations.”
Both Washington and Mexico City promptly rejected the report. Both opposed “legal regulation,” and declared they would not back away from the war on drugs, which by that time had racked up roughly forty thousand dead. “The Obama administration’s efforts to reduce drug use,” said the White House, “are not born out of a culture war or drug-war mentality, but out of the recognition that drug use strains our economy, health, and public safety.” Calderón said his government “categorically rejects” the notion that “a stronger application of the law” had led to an increase in narco-violence.
2012: More dissent emerged from Latin American elites. In March, when Guatemala’s president proposed legalizing drugs, the U.S. embassy there swiftly responded with a stern warning about the “major public health and safety threat” such a policy represented. In April, at the Sixth Summit of the Americas, almost every president in the region was reported to be saying (albeit behind closed doors) that the “U.S.-sponsored-and-dictated” war on drugs was not working, and they needed to try something else. In June, at the gathering of the Organization of American States, Secretary of State John Kerry was on hand to defend existing policy, and the delegates—mindful that they risked U.S. trade sanctions and the loss of military and economic aid—prudently refrained from going public with their discontent.
But then, in November 2012, came the game changer. Residents of Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Adults would now be allowed to grow and consume their own supply, possess up to one ounce while traveling, and give the same amount as a gift to other adult citizens. Consumption in public remained illegal, and driving under the influence of marijuana would be treated like driving while drunk. More remarkably, the two states legalized cultivation, manufacturing, and selling of cannabis, subject to government licensing, regulation, and taxation. Much of the likely resulting revenue—estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars—would be earmarked for substance-abuse prevention, research, education, and healthcare.
Colorado and Washington did not have the size or political clout of California, but the reverberations from their decisions would be startling, immediate, and widespread. As Fox and Castañeda had predicted, legalization in the States—any states—prompted a change in official Mexico’s rhetoric.
In July, shortly after his election victory but before the U.S. referenda, Peña Nieto announced that while he was not in favor of legalizing drugs himself, “I’m in favor of opening a new debate in the strategy in the way we fight drug trafficking. It is quite clear that after several years of this fight against drug trafficking, we have more drug consumption, drug use, and drug trafficking. That means we are not moving in the right direction. Things are not working.” We “should debate in Congress, in the hemisphere and especially [he added pointedly] the U.S. should participate in this broad debate.”
Then in November came Washington and Colorado. Peña Nieto, while sticking to his opposition to legalization, said that in view of the two states’ decision, an international review of drug policy was more urgent than ever. Aides and allies were more vociferous. The powerful leader of the PRI delegation in Mexico’s Congress said: “The legalization of marijuana forces us to think very hard about our strategy to combat criminal organizations, mainly because the largest consumer in the world has liberalized its laws.” Peña Nieto’s top adviser, Luis Videgaray, said: “Obviously, we can’t handle a product that is illegal in Mexico, trying to stop its transfer to the United States, when in the United States, at least in part of the United States, it now has a different status.” More proactive still was Cesar Duarte, governor of Chihuahua and an ally of the new president: “It seems to me that we should move to authorize exports,” as then “we would have control over a business which today is run by criminals.” Despite these reactions, no actual steps were taken in this direction.
2013: During his south of the border visit in May, Obama gave a speech in which he declared: “We understand that much of the root cause of violence that’s been happening here in Mexico, for which so many Mexicans have suffered, is the demand for illegal drugs in the United States. And so we’ve got to continue to make progress on that front.” This was greeted with enthusiastic applause. Then he added: “I honestly do not believe that legalizing drugs is the answer. But I do believe that a comprehensive approach—not just law enforcement, but education and prevention and treatment—that’s what we have to do. And we’re going to stay at it because the lives of our children and the future of our nations depend on it.” No applause.
In August, Obama blinked. The Department of Justice elected not to sue Washington and Colorado over their legalization of marijuana, and not to prosecute its sale and consumption in those states, if cannabis commerce was tightly regulated, did not cross state lines, and was forbidden to minors. Federal law remained unchanged; and cannabis continued to be classified as a dangerous Schedule I substance.
In December, he blinked again. Uruguay—determined to forestall the arrival of Mexican-style violence—legalized and regulated the production, distribution, and sale of marijuana, allowing home cultivation, registration of growers’ clubs, licensed sales to adults in pharmacies, and provision of medical marijuana through the Ministry of Public Health. In sharp contrast to the previous year’s dressing down of Guatemala, there was nary a peep from the U.S. embassy about the new law.
2014: Obama promulgated a National Drug Control Strategy that left the prohibitionist structure in place, but rejected traditional drug-war rhetoric. The White House was adopting “a twenty-first century approach to drug policy.” It would be “science-based,” unlike the twentieth century approach, which had been the prisoner of “powerful myths and misconceptions.” Back in the day it was believed that addicts were “morally flawed and lacking in willpower,” and that their transgressions required a punitive response. (Take that, Harry Anslinger!). But modern neuroscience had discovered that addiction is really a disease of the brain, one that like diabetes, asthma, or hypertension could and should be treated (this point was underscored with colorful images of brain scans). That was why his administration would treat addiction as a public health issue. “An enforcement-centric ‘war on drugs’ approach to drug policy is counterproductive, inefficient, and costly,” the White House said, insisting that “we simply cannot incarcerate our way out of the drug problem.” On the other hand—“at the other extreme”—the drug legalization approach was equally flawed, as it would lead to more drug use, hence higher health and criminality costs (assertions that, besides being demonstrably false, completely ignored the harm reduction and public health focus of the new state laws). Critiquing the drug war while continuing to wage it had become something of a tradition for the Obama administration; the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy had called for a shift to a public health policy as early as 2009. But the president had nevertheless made a genuine contribution to a non-punitive approach by expanding access to treatment programs for addicts. Twenty-two million Americans, the White House estimated, were in need of such attention, which only two million were receiving. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) required insurance companies to cover such services.
On the international front, 2014 brought an escalation of assaults on another stronghold of war on drugs warriors—the United Nations. In 1961, pressed by the United States (with Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Anslinger leading the charge54), the UN had adopted a Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (supplemented by 1971 and 1988 treaties). The long-term announced goal was that “all non-medical use of narcotics” be eventually “outlawed everywhere,” leading to a “drug-free world.” All signatories agreed to tailor their domestic drug legislation to UN specifications, which dictated criminalization policies. An International Narcotics Control Board was established to ensure compliance. Over the subsequent fifty-odd years, whenever a state considered experimenting with a more tolerant approach to drug use, international diplomatic pressure was applied to “protect the integrity of the Conventions.”
In September 2014, a new report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy (Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work) challenged this status quo, calling for more flexible interpretations or outright revision of the international conventions “to accommodate experimentation with harm reduction, decriminalization and legal regulatory policies.” They set their sights on the upcoming (2016) United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, seeing it as “an historic opportunity to discuss the shortcomings of the drug control regime, identify workable alternatives.”
In another important shift of U.S. policy, a high-ranking official responded to this in October by agreeing that the treaty’s tight corset needed to be loosened. Assistant Secretary of State for Drugs and Law Enforcement William Brownfield, in addressing a UN committee, said: “How could I, a representative of the government of the United States of America, be intolerant of a government that permits any experimentation with legalization of marijuana if two of the fifty states of the United States of America have chosen to walk down that road?”55
In November 2014 two more states (Oregon and Alaska) and Washington, DC chose to walk down the same road—their electorates voting to legalize cannabis for recreational use.
So what’s next for the United States?
There has clearly been a major change in popular thinking about pot, and it seems to be accelerating. In a 1969 Gallup poll only 12 percent had supported legalization. Then the numbers rose slowly, to 25 percent in 1995 and 36 percent in 2005, then jumped to 48 percent in 2012 and vaulted to 58 percent only a year later, breaking through to majority status. This gives credibility to the widely held belief that upcoming ballot initiatives or legislative proposals proposing legalization—scheduled for 2016 in Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, Arizona, and, once again, pivotal California—are likely to succeed.
Will marijuana reform then sweep the nation, becoming national policy? That will depend on the outcome of an upcoming political struggle.
There are significant forces lined up to perpetuate the status quo. These include institutions that are themselves products of the war on drugs approach and would not long survive its passing. The Drug Enforcement Administration would be hard-pressed to justify its annual budget of roughly $2.5 billion if the legal ground shifted beneath it. Many police departments and public prosecutors have been in the forefront of lobbying campaigns against marijuana ballot initiatives and legislative drug-law reforms, although others have embraced decriminalization as they consider hunting down tokers a diversion from pursuing serious criminals. The mammoth incarceration complex that has grown up to house a wildly expanded prison population will likely resist any diminution in the production of felons, its lifeblood, as would the many communities that have been forced by deindustrialization to accept the running of jailhouses as their bread-and-butter industry. The gun lobby might not be frontally challenged by drug legalization, but arms manufacturers have made big money from legal and illegal sales to Mexico, and the NRA is hyper-alert to anything that might imperil Smith & Wesson’s profits.56 There are many in faith-based institutions who would decry granting legal absolution to those who indulge in immoral (some would say wicked) behavior. And many in public health institutions would oppose the further diffusion of toxic substances.
Ranged against this formidable congeries of prohibitionists are the increasingly organized forces promoting repeal. These groups include the Drug Policy Association, NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), the Marijuana Policy Project, the Marijuana Majority, LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), and innumerable local groups like Arkansas CALM (Citizen’s Alliance for the Legalization of Marijuana), whose vice president, pastor at the Sabbath Day Church of God in Hot Springs, is promoting an Arkansas Hemp & Marijuana Amendment to the state constitution. Their members contest these arguments and interests, and advance other concerns.
There are proponents of public health who suggest that prohibition has diverted resources from health care to punishment; libertarians who object to governmental intrusion in the private lives of citizens; strapped states seeking to tap potential tax revenues and reduce the costs (in the billions) of enforcing laws on possession; to say nothing of the thirty million Americans who annually smoke weed because they enjoy it.
Spurred by mass protests against militarized policing, led by African Americans, there has also been an increase in public repudiation of the immense expansion of the prison population, and the use of marijuana possession as justification for the mass incarceration that has overwhelmingly (and not coincidentally) ensnared people of color. Nationwide from 2001 to 2010, police made more than 8.2 million marijuana arrests; almost nine in ten were for possession, not sale. Between 1997 and 2012, New York City alone arrested and jailed more than six hundred thousand for simple possession; 87 percent of those arrested were blacks and Latinos. African Americans, who make up 14 percent of regular drug users, are 56 percent of those in state prison for drug offenses.
Even when their sentences are short ones, those who pass through this gulag are marked for life. As convicted felons they cannot vote, serve on juries, or receive public benefits like food stamps, housing, or education; they are often fired, and their future job prospects crippled. Ironically, the unemployable victims become prime candidates for recruitment by the very drug industry that prohibitionists want to dismantle. “Broken Windows” policing proponents argue that coming down hard on minor crimes prevents future major ones—a theory that bears some resemblance to the argument that marijuana should be proscribed lest users move on to harder stuff—but they take no cognizance of the devastating long-term impact on those arrested, those for whom broken windows mean broken lives.
Legalizers note, too, that moralizers who defend prohibition seldom extend their ethical concerns below the Rio Grande, hence fail to include the mass slaughter of Mexicans in their moral calculus. They also critique those who justify criminalizing drugs on public health grounds by noting that countries adopting harm-reduction strategies have done far better at diminishing drug-related medical damage than punitive-minded states. They also cite the U.S. success with nicotine reduction programs aimed at a lethal but legal drug, which have dramatically reduced smoking to its lowest level since the 1930s. In the case of the alarums raised over marijuana’s purported dangers, anti-prohibitionists point to the mortality statistics; as one runs an eye down the Center for Disease Control’s annual list of fatalities from drug consumption, the numbers (in 2012) tumble down from the 480,000 deaths chalked up to cigarette smoking, to the 88,000 alcohol-related deaths, through the 3,635 heroin overdoses, to the grand total of marijuana mortalities: zero.
Weighing up the pro- and anti-legalization contenders, and factoring in inertia—as the Founding Fathers knew, “experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed”—it is hard not to be pessimistic about the possibilities of a wholesale turnabout. On the other hand, there is a strong pragmatic streak running through the American past, alongside an at-times zealous utopianism.
On January 15, 1920, the Anti-Saloon League issued a press statement hailing the imminent demise of legal liquor. Tomorrow at midnight, the victorious prohibitionists rejoiced, a new nation would be born: “Now for an era of clean thinking and clean living!”
Twelve years later, in 1932, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who with his father had been the biggest single financial backer of Prohibition, now ruefully wrote: “When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”
Rockefeller was a Johnny-come-lately to the drive for Repeal, as by then a formidable coalition had gathered that was appalled at the amount of vice spawned by the effort to impose virtue, at the level of violence generated by inter-gang warfare, and at the amount of corruption spawned by the state’s war against the gangs. New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who had fought vigorously but unsuccessfully against the dry crusaders, had remarked dryly that “it would take seventy-five thousand coast guardsmen to protect the Florida coastline alone—and then we’d need seventy-five thousand more to watch them.”
Yet the corruption never came close to the degree of rot that has corroded Mexican institutions. The level of violence attained in the U.S. in the 1920s—all those St. Valentine’s Day Massacres—was piddling compared to the mountainous death toll in Ciudad Juárez alone. Nevertheless, despite the Prohibitionists having (so they thought) ensured their proscription’s permanence by carving it into the Constitution itself, the United States managed to reverse itself. Despite the embarrassment of having to go through the enormously complex process of inserting an amendment into the Constitution, and one dedicated solely to repealing another amendment, Americans re-legalized a substance that was (and remains) far more dangerous than heroin, or cocaine, or crystal meth, to say nothing of marijuana.
Yes, it’s a different time, different circumstances, different players. Yes, the odds are against a twenty-first-century replay of the twentieth century’s Repeal; but the fact remains that the U.S. has done it before, and could do it again. Legalization of marijuana (and perhaps other drugs) would not be a magic bullet. Believing it would end the drug wars overnight would be as delusional as was the fantasy of prohibitionists that banning alcohol would usher in “an era of clean thinking and clean living.” There are far too many variables involved to say with any surety how it would work out. The possibility of negative as well as positive unanticipated consequences would have to be kept in mind. But given that the damage already wrought by drug prohibitionsts far outweighs the damage done by their anti-alcohol forebears, it’s time to consider a change.
And what’s next for Mexico?
Here the odds against a Uruguayan or Colorado-style reconsideration are considerably higher, given that Mexico remains constrained by American policy, and by the presence of vicious cartels on its soil. But it’s possible to hypothesize a route toward revision.
Peña Nieto’s administration has been reluctant to do more than speculate about changing the rules. The PRI strategy, after all, had been to avoid dealing with drug war issues as much as possible, and to focus instead on neoliberal economic initiatives. Legalization would require a drastic shift of priorities (though not of ideology, as decriminalization could be packaged as a blow for free trade). But the autodefensa movement, and now the nationwide outrage over the mass murder of the Forty-Three, coupled with the concern of international investors about ongoing rampant criminality, has forced EPN to confront the crime issue. But how? Given that a replay of Calderón’s all-out military assault is almost certainly off the table—been there, done that, didn’t work—one of the likeliest ways of tackling crime would be to go the decriminalization route, drying up the sea in which the cartel fish swim. But here he would run up against the United States, whose ability to retaliate through decertification and other measures remains unimpaired, as it has for the last century. How to break out of this trap?
One possibility: PRD politicians in Mexico City have said they will submit a legalization package to the city’s legislature, where passage would be quite likely. The capital is more liberal than the country on cultural matters, having already accepted legalized abortion and gay marriage.57If the city did, the federal government would be confronted with the same quandary the Obama administration faced after Colorado and Washington’s breakaway move; they could sue or order arrests, or they could acquiesce. Assume, moreover, that in 2016 California legalizes marijuana production and distribution (current polls show 65 percent in favor). It’s just possible that a Mexican legalization of exports might not bring down the wrath of the still-in-power Obama administration; indeed the whole war on drugs regime might become destabilized, perhaps unsustainable.58
There are plenty of U.S. businessmen who are plumping for such an eventuality; one former Microsoft executive is soliciting investors for $10 million in start-up money to create the first U.S. national marijuana brand, which would supply cannabis imported legally from Mexico to recreational and medical outlets. (He has begun buying up dispensaries and touring with Vicente Fox touting his vision.) After New York passed its medical marijuana law in July 2014, and gave the Health Department eighteen months to choose five companies to produce the herb from “seed to sale,” it triggered a grass rush of would-be growers, investors, lobbyists, consultants, and branding firms. In October, nine hundred people flocked to a three-day East Coast Cannabis Business Expo, Educational Conference and Regulatory Summit, chockablock with vendors and venture capitalists prepared to shell out $20 million in start-up costs. The venerable counterculture magazine High Times announced it planned to create a private equity High Times Growth Fund to invest in cannabis businesses.59
But what of the cartels? How are they likely to respond to all this flux? How are they dealing with declining marijuana profits? Some are bailing out. An April 2014 report from the Golden Triangle region of Sinaloa found that farmers were no longer planting marijuana, its wholesale price having collapsed from $100 per kilogram to less than $25. “It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Scilla, fifty, a lifelong cannabis farmer, adding: “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”
Are the cartels really ready to abandon marijuana production? Perhaps they could go straight, becoming corporations—Sinaloa Cartel, Inc.? The rate of return on legal weed would be less, but so would overhead—fewer bribes, lower arms-budgets and transport costs. But what about competition? Would the Zetas, turned purveyors of Zeta brand joints, be prepared to join with the makers of “El Chapo brand” reefers in peaceable trade associations? Attend conventions? Would American tobacco corporations flock south and go toe-to-toe with the formerly fearsome killer-businessmen? It doesn’t seem likely. But for the moment the issue is not pressing, as the cartels can simply shift to an as yet un-decriminalized product. Indeed, they already have.
Drug farmers in Sinaloa are filling their fields with opium poppies, partly in response to heightened demand in the United States. American authorities, trying to contain an epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse, have tightened controls on semi-synthetic opiates such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. As the pills have become more costly and difficult to obtain, the cartels have adjusted their product line, sending heroin flooding north. Similarly, cartels are experimenting with cultivating coca leaves; in September 2014, 639,000 plants were discovered in Chiapas.
In the long run, however, a half-criminal and half-legal situation probably could not stand, and would likely require a complete dismantling of the anti-drug regime, including the whole spectrum of presently criminalized drugs (as did Mexico’s 2009 law, though only for possession of tiny amounts, and as does the full-rigged approach adopted by Portugal). The peaceable production of drug crops would become just another industry—like growing avocados or making tequila—and by providing decently paying agricultural jobs for campesinos, might go partway to reversing some of the damage wrought by NAFTA. In the end, a real recovery would require tackling Mexico’s pervasive poverty, unemployment, and economic inequality by providing the citizenry with decent jobs, good educations, and affordable healthcare. This, however, is a social project incompatible with an ongoing commitment to neoliberal demands and continuing fantasies of salvation through oil investment, especially now that the price of oil has collapsed.
Would ending the “Mexican Drug War” by decriminalizing it out of existence be politically conceivable? Perhaps, given the blood-soaked alternative. The hope would be, given the tremendous hit the cartels would take thanks to diminished profitability, that they and their ganglet offspring (like the Guerreros Unidos, who committed the savagery against the Forty-Three in Iguala) might become vulnerable to a focused assault by restructured and less bribable forces of order. If some of civil society’s current furious insistence that justice, law, and order prevail were to be channeled into pressing for a structural solution, rather than another short-term fix, there’s a chance that Mexico might be able to dig itself out of the mess it has gotten into, courtesy in large part of the U.S.A. Perhaps it’s time to say:
¡Ya Basta! One hundred years is enough.
54 After Anslinger retired in 1962, aged seventy, he served as the United States Representative to the United Nations Narcotics Commission for two years, where he exported American prohibitionism to the global level.
55 On the other hand, Brownfield wanted the corset itself to remain in place. The international community, he said, should “respect the integrity of the existing UN Drug Control Conventions,” even as they allowed for some greater degree of flexibility. Which is why the human rights agency WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America) cautioned that Brownfield’s statement was likely mainly aimed at damage control: if the UN conventions could be interpreted to allow for marijuana legalization, now that the U.S. wanted it, perhaps calls for more thoroughgoing revision could be headed off.
56 Theoretically, a wedge might be driven between gun makers and gun users—the hunters and home-defenders who don’t always agree with positions the NRA advances in their name. It might be possible to rally support for limitations strictly aimed at curtailing exports, and thus win ratification of CIFTA. But it’s not likely.
57 A Mexican analog of U.S. groups like the Drug Policy Association is CUPIHD (Colectivo por una Política Integral hacia las Drogas). The organization includes psychologists, journalists, lawyers, academics, artists, doctors, and civil society activists, including the distinguished historian and sociologist of the drug industry Luis Astorga.
58 Of course it’s possible that California might resist Mexican imports, preferring to shelter its infant industry from international competition. Or that a movement modeled on those calling for energy independence might emerge, dedicated to freeing the U.S. from dependence on foreign marijuana producers. Or that Republicans would jump on the issue, crying “soft on crime!” and Hillary Clinton or whomever the Democrats nominate would likely cave immediately.
59 This whole scene bears some resemblance to the forces of capital circling Cuba, waiting and hoping for the collapse of existing Cuban and U.S. constraints on their ability to invest—now that a fledgling detente has been achieved.