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The War on Drugs: A Failed Paradigm

4 May 2010

The original of this article, “La Guerra contra las Drogas: Un Paradigma Fallido” by Santiago Roel is distributed by the Mexican think-tank RSS & Asociados ( My translation.

We are fighting a war against a powerful foreign market that is able to corrupt officials on both sides of the border, provide weapons to gangs, to divert attention from real solutions and leave people dead and terrorized the Mexican side.

This “war” began 40 years ago, decreed by the government of the United States that had criminalized drug use, thereby creating two artificial problems: Addiction problems became criminal problems; and a black market windfall created powerful incentives problem of addiction that became a criminal problem and a black market windfall created a an industry too powerful to be broken.

Addictions have not declined in the U.S.:  drug use remains level at about twenty percent of the ppulation between 18 and 25. In fact, marijuana use in the U.S. is four times that of Mexico, cocaine use is seven, amphetamine use eight and Ecstasy use 100 times higher than the rate in Mexico.

The market for drugs in the United States is 200 billion dollars a year. This is 10 times the defense budget in Mexico and five times what is budgeted in the U.S. for this “war”.   Do you really believe you can win?

Containing the supply of drugs has been a wrong paradigm – the price of drugs has fallen. The street price of a gram of cocaine in the U.S., in 1990 was USD $184, that same ounce in 2006 fell to $103. That’s a price reduction of 62%, after inflation. 30% of high school students think it is easy or very easy to get drugs at school. The indications of obvious:  the supply has increased.

Mexican Corruption?

Sure, it’s easier to find a scapegoat than to admit to problems.  But the U.S. government refuses to reconsider the paradigms and prefers to blame the Mexicans.

Judge James P. Gray, Orange County, California, has courageously quested the whole mess.   He has written a great book Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and discusses his views on his website With over 30 years of experience, he is the prototype of a judge:  rational, prudent, conservative.

Politicians, says Gray, they are followers, not leaders.  They wait for the people to change the paradigms.   I recently wrote him, asking what this meant for the Mexicans.

Who won the war according to Gray? The DEA and U.S. agencies:  they exist on the funding of the ban on drug use.  They, and those who build and administer prisons, drug cartels, arms dealers and a few others.

Who has lost the war? Everyone else, including addicts themselves, and all Mexicans who now suffer from insecurity and corruption.

Gray proposed regulatory control  (note, not legalization) of drugs is done in Switzerland, where addiction is treated for what it is:  a health problem.  The government records and gives addicts a dose of their needed substance in return for not committing crimes or turning to prostitution. The program has been very successful. Among other things, has decreased drug-related crime (robberies, assaults, injuries, homicides) by 75 percent, AIDS infections are down, and of course, some addicts have been rehabilitated.

But we also have the example of Portugal which decriminalized drug use in 2001.There, the choice is between a  € 25 fine for consumers, or the alternative of visiting a panel of medical, legal counsel and social worker to assist with addiction problems.   If the consumer does not attend a counseling session, there are no sanctions.  Interesting. What has happened since then? Drug use and addiction have declined. The increased drug tourism opponents feared has not materialized.

These are two success stories but U.S. politicians are opposed to it because the pressure from the moralists and the interests of government agencies themselves are stronger.  They keep selling over and over again the position that the Mexicans are to blame, as they used to blame the Colombians.

The question is not whether the situation is so serious that the army needs to be on the streets, supposedly because the police have been infiltrated by the cartels, and – as a last resort – we must support the President.  These are symptoms of the wrong paradigm.   The real question is why we have been forced to fight a war that, by its conceptual flaws, is unwinnable.

The real issue is that our government must take a rational, more practical and substantive path. Is President Calderón ready to lead this paradigm shift?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Ricardo permalink
    4 May 2010 9:59 am

    As someone that has spent years on the ground , mostly in rural areas, in northern mexico, it is obvious to me that there are generations of campo people that have made there ( meager) living from growing pot. For them it is there only option for generating an income . If pot is decriminalized in the U.S. and the profit and incentive for growing it is gone there are huge social ramifications to this, both for Mexico and the U.S. It is my feeling that the financial desperation in many rural areas will create its own ( train wreck) . This is a part of the drug legalization conversation that needs to be looked at . Ricardo

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