Four Decades Later, It’s Time to Scrap the Dead-End Drug War

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The cemetery in Durango, Mexico where the bodies found in several mass graves across the city will be buried. May 16, 2011. Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP / Getty Images

I recently returned from the desert city of Durango, Mexico, where forensic officials are still trying to identify some 240 corpses discovered this year in mass graves. More than 200 other bodies have been found in similar fosas across northern Mexico. All were victims, many of them innocent victims, of the drug-trafficking violence whose barbarity seems bottomless. But it’s fueled in large part by the just as endless American appetite for illegal drugs – which itself is due in no small part to the fact that our anti-drug policies are so narrow-mindedly focused on battling supply instead of reducing demand.

Americans can summon all our gringo chauvinism and lament how savage things have gotten south of the border. Or we can wake up and acknowledge that we’ve helped los narcos dig the mass graves that are scarring Mexico’s landscape and its psyche. And today is the moment to start that mea culpa. June 17 marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s call for the “drug war,” which has since cost the U.S. $1 trillion. The best way to commemorate it is to admit that the war – at least the way we’re fighting it now – is lost.

By that I mean no disrespect to the anti-drug agents and prosecutors on the front lines, many of whom I’ve come to know and admire over my 22 years covering Mexico’s drug-cartel crisis as some of the bravest and brightest in our government. But our obsession with incarcerating every drug offender we can find at home and eradicating every coca leaf we can find abroad – without helping American addicts get adequate treatment or Latin American farmers find viable alternatives to poppies – simply makes the work of drug interdiction harder, if not futile. We’ve got to find another way, one that costs us less money and fewer lives.

(PHOTOS: Guinea-Bissau, the world’s first narco-state.)

More rehab, less lockup: First, let’s concede that the Global Commission on Drug Policy – founded by the former presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, countries where drug blood is spilled in industrial quantities – got a lot of things right when it announced this month that the worldwide war on drugs has failed. Its most important point was that the U.S., Europe and other drug-consumption centers have to change how they look at the crisis: as more a health problem than a criminal problem. Two-thirds or more of Washington’s $15 billion annual anti-drug budget is spent on conventional interdiction, but half should be going to drug rehab and other demand-reducing devices – especially in this fiscally perilous age. Since as early as 1994, research has shown that the societal costs of the drug war, from prison cells to productivity loss, drop appreciably more – 14 times more in one Rand Corporation study – when a dollar is spent on drug treatment instead of on law enforcement. If you need another convincer, consider that more than half our federal prison population today consists of drug offenders, yet the U.S. is still the world’s No. 1 per capita consumer of illegal drugs, to the tune of $65 billion a year.

The Obama Administration realizes this Sisyphean folly and is moving more resources to treatment-based policies. But expanding them faces a key obstacle: chest-thumping politicians who reap more votes by sending a Black Hawk helicopter to Mexico than by sending a U.S. addict through a successful rehab program. The Administration is also right to promote drug-court programs that require rehab, usually in lieu of jail time if the offense is mere possession. Just as important: ending our decades-long mania for expensive, mandatory minimum drug sentences. Cash-strapped states, and not just the blue states, are increasingly making that course correction themselves. Kentucky recently signed a measure into law reducing drug-crime sentences. One is even being considered in Florida, where two-thirds of all arrests are drug-related, but where zealous get-tough sentencing – people there have gotten 25 years for illegal possession of painkillers – has helped explode its annual corrections bill from $170 million in 1980 to $2.5 billion today.

Legalize pot: What the White House gets wrong is its dismissal of the Global Commission’s suggestion to legalize at least more benign drugs like marijuana. By some estimates, U.S. law enforcement spends about $8 billion a year chasing marijuana, a drug widely considered no more harmful than alcohol when consumed moderately. A big drug-war dispute today is whether marijuana, not cocaine, brings Mexico’s drug cartels the majority of their earnings. Given that marijuana isn’t just trafficked through Mexico but produced there, and that half of all U.S. drug arrests involve pot, recent government estimates that suggest marijuana is the cash cow for Mexico’s mafias are credible. Either way, when Mexican drug gangsters are making more than $30 billion a year, it’s hard not to conclude that legalizing marijuana, the way the 21st Amendment re-legalized booze, would put a serious crimp in their finances – money that buys the arsenals they’ve used to kill almost 40,000 Mexicans (and some Americans) since 2007.

Promote Mexican cops: Because so many Mexican police moonlight for the cartels, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has had to rely on his army to confront the narcos. But in the end, soldiers don’t rein in criminal scourges like drug gangs; police do, as examples from Sicily to Hong Kong to Colombia prove. Mexico’s soldiers have had some successes busting kilos and capos, but the only long-term solution to Mexico’s nightmare are professional investigative police forces. They too make arrests and seizures, but they also take down, RICO-style, the finances of mafias as well as their political and business protection, such as money-laundering. As a result, less of the $1.5 billion the U.S. has pledged to aid Mexico in its drug war should go to the military, and more should be steered to police and judicial modernization.

Ban the big guns: A good way we can help Mexico’s cops is to make sure they aren’t outgunned. One of the bigger lies the U.S. gun lobby peddles is that Mexico’s carnage isn’t fueled by weapons smuggled from the U.S. It’s no coincidence that Mexican drug violence began to spike in 2005, a year after George W. Bush let the U.S. ban on assault weapon sales expire. This month, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives concluded that 70% of the guns confiscated by Mexican authorities the past two years came from north of the border. Which doesn’t surprise me, since I’ve been to enough gangland murder scenes in Mexico in recent years where investigators have pointed out that rounds were fired from U.S.-made M-16 assault rifles, which many narcos prefer to Russian-made AK-47s because of their accuracy. If we want to see less killing south of the border, reinstate the assault weapon sales ban.

What matters above all is the realization that Nixon’s drug war, for all its good intentions, was conceived in an ill-informed hysteria that we’ve had 40 long years to correct, but haven’t. And, to our shame, that’s largely because it’s not American bodies that are being found in all those mass graves.

SEE: Inside the narco-submarines of Colombia’s cartels.