Drugs: Root of violent problem is prohibition - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Drugs: Root of violent problem is prohibition

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Posted: Saturday, March 7, 2009 8:01 pm | Updated: 1:35 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Steven Greenhut: When it comes to foreign affairs, Americans are used to debating progress or setbacks in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or on the Israeli invasion last month of the Gaza Strip.

When it comes to foreign affairs, Americans are used to debating progress or setbacks in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or on the Israeli invasion last month of the Gaza Strip.

We’re used to thinking about death and destruction thousands of miles from home and, as a result, tend to debate these matters based more on glancing impressions, quick reads of newspapers and Web sites and sound bites rather than personal knowledge or the knowledge of those who live in the countries at issue.

What if I mentioned that thousands of people have been killed — 7,337 at last count — since 2007 in open warfare just a short drive from here? Or that the grisly violence has reached close to areas within the readership of this newspaper? What if I noted that the violence has altered the lives of many of our neighbors, friends and co-workers, who have family members who dwell in the heart of the war zone? What if I added that, because of this war, we place our lives in jeopardy by simply visiting some of our favorite vacation spots? Would that cause you to think twice about your foreign-policy priorities?

I am referring, of course, to Mexico, which has turned into a horror show in the past couple of years. There’s been sporadic news coverage of these events. But the average American — and the average politician, for that matter — doesn’t seem attuned or interested in a human tragedy that’s starting to spill not just across the border, but deeply into the American interior.

I still receive many phone calls and e-mails from readers upset about the “Mexican” situation, but they aren’t talking about the beheadings, murders, kidnappings, assassinations of newspaper editors, gunfights in town squares between drug lords and the military, killings of bystanders and children, or about the huge numbers of Mexican police who work for the cartels.

No, they are referring to the immigration situation, and they generally are upset at the number of Mexican nationals who come north mainly to escape grueling poverty. But, as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich pointed out at a recent speech to an Orange County, Calif., trade association, there isn’t a wall big enough to keep out the nasty problems now destroying Mexico. Americans need to think more broadly about this matter. Since hearing Gingrich, I’ve been reading about, and fuming over, these horrors.

American policy — in particular, the federal government’s insistence on funding and fighting a drug war here and in pushing the Mexican government to battle the drug cartels down south — has exacerbated the carnage in Mexico. That’s not to reduce the responsibility of the evil folks committing evil acts.

But as Ted Galen Carpenter of the libertarian Cato Institute explained in a 2008 article for The National Interest, “U.S. policy seems to assume that if the Mexican government can eliminate the top drug lords, their organizations will fall apart, thereby greatly reducing the flow of illegal drugs to the United States.”

But Carpenter notes that cutting off the head of one drug Hydra leads only to more heads sprouting. He gets to the real problem: “If Washington continues to pursue a prohibitionist strategy, which creates the enormous black-market profits in drug trafficking, violence and corruption will become a dominant and permanent feature of Mexican life.”

Unfortunately, not many Americans on the political left or right are willing to even discuss the real answer, which is the decriminalization of drugs. Indeed, it’s hard to even get any support for the modest goal of allowing people to sell small amounts of marijuana to terminally ill people.

Yet, it’s the illegality of drugs that makes them so lucrative, and which assures that only the most vicious gangsters will thrive as the price goes ever higher. Even those Americans who see Mexico merely in terms of illegal immigration ought to broaden their horizons. If the lawlessness down south isn’t reduced, pressure will increase for immigration, legal or otherwise, as more Mexicans seek refuge from the violence outside their doors.

Americans need to stop being so childish about drug issues. Yes, drugs are bad, but some people will always use them. Government cannot stop this desire, and government interdiction efforts only succeed in raising the price of the contraband, which leads to an even bigger reason to violently fight it out over the market. It provides the money needed to buy off cops and corrupt an entire justice system.

We don’t see Budweiser dealers shooting it out on Main Street with Miller dealers to control the beer trade. That’s because beer sales are legal. That may seem absurd, but consider that the same sort of battles took place in the United States between bootleggers when alcohol was illegal in the 1920s and early 1930s.

“During Prohibition, there were undoubtedly people … claiming, 'Booze consumption is down. We’re winning the war on booze. Al Capone is in jail. We’ve got to keep on waging the war on booze until we can declare final victory,’” wrote Jacob Hornberger, president of the free-market Future of Freedom Foundation. “Fortunately, Americans living at that time finally saw through such nonsense, especially given the massive Prohibition-related violent crime that the war on booze had spawned. They were right to finally legalize the manufacture and sale of alcohol and treat alcohol consumption as a social issue, not a criminal-justice problem.”

I think back to ancient history — the early days of the George W. Bush administration. Our new president touted America’s special relationship with Mexico and met several times with then-Mexican President Vicente Fox in an effort to bring about a more open border and better relationships between our two democracies.

The issues of the time — illegal immigration, Bush’s proposed guest-worker program and the plan to make it easier for Mexican trucks to travel into the United States — were contentious, but seem like minor-league stuff compared to today’s goings-on.

This is from the Los Angeles Times in October: “As Tijuana’s latest flare-up in the drug war rages into its fifth week, with the death toll approaching 150, violence is permeating everyday life here, causing widespread fear, altering people’s habits and exposing the city’s youngest to carnage.”

I’d hate to think of this going on for years, but it probably will. The root of the problem — drug prohibition — seems obvious, but for some reason Americans and Mexicans are unwilling to consider an end to it. But even if few people are willing to discuss the solution, it’s high time that Americans pay more attention to this problem.

Steven Greenhut is a columnist for The Orange County Register. He can be reached at sgreenhut@ocregister.com.

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