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Surgical Strikes in the Drug Wars

By Mark Kleiman, Foreign Affairs, Sep-Oct 2011. More than a thousand people die each month in drug-dealing violence in Mexico, and the toll has been rising. In some parts of the country, the police find themselves outgunned by drug tra⁄ckers and must rely on the armed forces. Meanwhile, the United States suaers from the widespread abuse of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and cannabis; violence and disorder surrounding retail drug markets; property theft and violent crime committed by drug abusers; and mass incarcer- ation, including half a million people behind bars for drug oaenses and at least as many for crimes committed for money to buy drugs.
Current policies, clearly, have unsatisfactory results. But what is to replace them? Neither of the standard alternatives—a more vigorous pursuit of current antidrug eaorts or a system of legal availabil- ity for currently proscribed drugs—oaers much hope. Instead, it is time for Mexico and the United States to consider a set of less conventional approaches.
Most of the illicit drugs consumed in the United States come through or from Mexico, and virtually all the revenue of Mexican drug-tra⁄cking organizations comes from sales to the United States. Thinking of this as a single shared drug problem suggests a shared responsibility for controlling that problem. In the conventional telling, Mexico’s role is to limit illicit exports, while the United States should act to shrink demand and domestic production, relying on the standard drug-control triad of enforcement, prevention, and treatment.
The conventional alternative to this conventional wisdom holds that the problem is not drugs but drug laws, and that the solution is therefore legal availability. Since prohibition creates illicit markets, the argument goes, only some form of regulated availability can eliminate the illicit market and the resulting problems. Even under legal availability, say the anti-prohibitionists, prevention and treatment eaorts can limit the ex- tent of drug abuse and the damage it causes. Last June’s report of the self-appointed Global Commission on Drug Policy—whose signatories included former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Switzer- land, as well as former un Secretary-General Kofi Annan—laid out the anti-drug-war view. But the established understanding and the estab- lished alternative share an undue faith in the power of prevention and treatment; the established view also embraces an overoptimistic assessment of the power of enforcement.
A more realistic understanding would take into account the limited capacity of the conventional drug-control triad and the enormous power of markets—licit and illicit—to shape behavior. Policies based on that understanding would aim at changing the incentives facing both drug dealers and drug users, with the goal of reducing violence and disorder and shrinking the U.S. prison population. Of course, more logical policies cannot guarantee better results, and even a better result would not be a solution to the drug problem. At best, Mexico and the United States could end up with a result that would be, in the words of the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, merely “distasteful” rather than “catastrophic.” But a bad result is preferable to a worse one.

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