U.S. Drug Czar Responds to Global Spin: Legalization Is No “Silver Bullet”

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In my Aug. 30 post, I posed two questions about the speech Mexican President Felipe Calderon gave on Aug. 26, a day after the massacre of 52 innocent people in a Monterrey casino set afire by drug-cartel gangsters. The first question: was Calderon, fed up with America’s “insatiable” demand for drugs, in effect telling the U.S. to consider legalizing some of them when he said we should seek “market alternatives” to our largely failed anti-drug policies. The second: if Calderon – a staunch U.S. drug-war ally – really is making that philosophical about-face, would that put more pressure on the Obama Administration to rethink its own opposition to legalization?

Obama drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, sent me his response to both questions: Negative. While he acknowledges that Calderon’s speech has touched off a flurry of speculation that it “may have been a coded message that Mexico and the U.S. should consider legalizing drugs,” Kerlikowske doesn’t think it was, nor is the U.S. entertaining such an idea:

In fact, the U.S. has no intention of legalizing harmful substances, nor do we believe that Mexico desires this outcome. President Calderon has said consistently, and more recently in his remarks following the casino catastrophe, that he is committed to treating addiction and arresting drug traffickers. While it is tempting to think that legalization offers a “silver bullet” solution to the drug problem – despite the devastating public health dangers it would present – the facts tell us it would also do little or nothing to end criminal violence.

(PHOTOS: Mexico’s Ongoing Drug Violence)

Kerlikowske goes on to tell me:

The groups responsible for the atrocious violence in Mexico are true poly-crime organizations, generating revenue from a wide array of illicit activities, from human trafficking to extortion to even oil theft. Last week’s tragedy is a case in point: reports indicate that the attack on the casino in Monterrey was linked to an extortion operation conducted by a criminal organization that also engaged in drug trafficking and other crimes. If legalizing drugs were to magically eliminate the black market (which is doubtful given the persistence of black markets for other legal products), it would do nothing to deprive criminal organizations of their revenue from extortion and other crimes.

Despite growing support in the U.S. for medical-related access to marijuana, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that even if the Obama Administration did want to put drug legalization on the table, it would face a high political hurdle in this country, as evidenced by last year’s defeat of a California ballot measure to legalize possession of even small amounts of pot. And I agree with Kerlikowske that legalization shouldn’t include genuinely harmful, ravagingly addictive substances like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

But when most drug-war observers, including journalists like myself, engage legalization, we’re usually referring to marijuana, whose moderate consumption is widely considered no more harmful than society’s legal drug, alcohol. Mexican narco-violence has claimed 40,000 lives south of the border since 2006. While I also agree with the director that legalization is no silver bullet for ending that tragedy, I do believe that classifying marijuana with beer, wine and booze could put a significant dent in the criminal resources that buy all the high-caliber bullets plaguing Mexico today. Mexican drug cartels rake in $30 billion each year – “stratospheric” earnings, as Calderon called them – generated by a U.S. market that spends more on illicit drugs than it does on higher education. And as much as half of that is made trafficking marijuana.

(PHOTOS: A Giant Marijuana Plantation Is Discovered in Mexico)

Still, Kerlikowke’s point that legalization doesn’t make black markets magically disappear is a good one. And so is his assertion, one I too made in my Aug. 30 post, that even if we were to deprive the Mexican cartels of drug-trafficking revenue, they could still make up for some of it (and already do) via other criminal activities, like kidnapping and extortion, as long as Mexico fails to build credible police and judicial institutions.

Kerlikowske calls that “Mexico’s principal challenge,” and he believes Calderon “has engaged in a courageous effort to do just that.” The drug czar adds: “Through the assistance provided in the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative, the U.S. is supporting his efforts to ensure Mexico reaches its potential as a secure and prosperous 21st-century democracy.” I too have regularly given Calderon his props for pushing the kind of police and judicial reforms that are Mexico’s only real long-term solution to its narco-nightmare. Kerlikowske and drug-war observers like me will just have to agree to disagree about whether marijuana legalization would be a help along the way.