Some lawmakers have spent decades saying it's time to end the drug war, and they may have found new allies in an unlikely place — foreign policy wonks.The Council on Foreign Relations, the highly respected, independent think tank in Washington DC, has boldly come out in favor of state-level marijuana legalization.
In its new policy paper, "The Drug War in Mexico: Confronting a Shared Threat," the mainstream organization adopts longtime recommendations of "fringe" groups like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The council, for example, calls for an end to the drug war that it says isn't stopping drug use and is empowering vicious drug trafficking organizations like Los Zetas — who assassinated US agent Jaime Zapata on February 15 outside the Mexican city of San Luis Potosi.
The paper also likely will become a key reference for the reform community, because it outlines, in clear language with sourced facts, the problems that the United States faces. "Half of adult Americans admit to having tried drugs in the past, and the United States remains the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs," the paper noted. "Roughly 8 percent of US residents over the age of 12 — some 19.9 million people — had used drugs within the past month.
"A state-driven, supply-side, and penalty-based approach has failed to curb market production, distribution, and consumption of drugs," the paper continued. "The assumption that punishing suppliers and users can effectively combat a large market for illicit drugs has proven to be utterly false. Rather, prohibition bestows enormous profits on traffickers, criminalizes otherwise law-abiding users and addicts, and imposes enormous costs on society. Meanwhile, there has been no real effect on the availability of drugs or their consumption, and three-quarters of US citizens believe the war on drugs has failed."
The paper also outlined the exorbitant costs of the drug war and its dismal results. "After a three-decade effort to beef up security, the US-Mexico border is more heavily fortified than at any point since the US-Mexico War of 1846-48," the paper noted. "The United States has deployed more than 20,000 border patrol agents and built hundreds of miles of fencing equipped with high-tech surveillance equipment, all at an annual cost of billions of dollars — with $3 billion per year spent on border control alone. While this massive security build-up at the border has achieved maximum attainable levels of operational control, the damage to Mexico's drug cartels caused by border interdiction has been inconsequential."
Relaxed gun laws in the United States also have helped propel the international drug and weapons trade, the paper noted. "The US is also the world's largest supplier of weapons, which fuel the drug war in a more direct way. Fully 10 percent of America's gun dealers line the Mexican border, and the country's permissive gun laws make it an inexpensive and convenient source of powerful guns, ammunition, and explosives."
In Mexico, President Felipe Calderon's crackdown on cartels has helped the country rack up 45,000 homicides since 2007. Traffickers make about $7 billion per year on American drugs, and an estimated 450,000 Mexicans rely on trafficking for income, representing 3 to 4 percent of Mexico's gross domestic product. The cities of Ciudad Juarez and Culiacan are among "the deadliest places in the world," the paper pointed out. Juarez had 2,000 homicides in 2009 and 2010 in a city of 1 million — "a number that exceeds the combined annual totals for New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington DC."
In addition to the usual recommendations, such as better coordinating with Mexican law enforcement, the paper dared to recommend that "the federal government should permit states to legalize the production, sale, taxation, and consumption of marijuana."
David Shirk, author of the paper and assistant professor and director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, told Legalization Nation that drugs are damaging to society, and we should all want reasonable controls on drug consumption, but we're spending a fortune and not getting it. "When you keep doing the same thing over and over again and your results get worse," he said, "you have to revisit your approach, reevaluate and try to identify alternative avenues and solutions."
Washington DC is tone deaf to drug law reform, Shirk said, but Beltway officials will listen to respected voices on national security. Those voices have now begun to say that the negative externalities of America's drug policy are coming home to roost. "You might be able to ignore a smaller, less relevant country many miles away, but when it's your third major trading partner and it contains the largest number of foreign-born US citizens, you kind of have to listen," Shirk said.
Keith Stroup, founder and legal counsel for NORML, believes that the council's paper could have an impact: "When people whose specialty is military public safety ... start saying there's a risk to the security of our country from continued marijuana prohibition, that will get the attention of people who do not have the slightest interest in marijuana."
The council does not recommend legalizing all drugs, just letting states experiment with pot legalization. Drug traffickers make about 30 percent of their drug money on weed, and the United States could cut them out of that market, instead applying those resources to interdicting the trafficking of highly toxic and addictive narcotics, such as cocaine and heroin.
It may take ten years, but the winds of change are blowing, Shirk said. "The burden of proof for the current policy is really on the policy makers," he said. "Is what we're doing worthwhile? What have we gained through the loss of so much blood, soil, and treasure?"