Monday, June 22, 2009

Ending the war

Jacob Sullum in Reason magazine:

During his April visit to Mexico, President Barack Obama suggested that Americans are partly to blame for the appalling violence associated with the illegal drug trade there. “The demand for these drugs in the United States is what’s helping keep these cartels in business,” he said. “This war is being waged with guns purchased not here but in the United States.”

Obama is right that the U.S. is largely responsible for the carnage in Mexico, which claimed more than 6,000 lives last year. But the problem is neither the drugs Americans buy nor the guns they sell; it’s the war on drugs our government has drafted the rest of the world to fight. Instead of acknowledging the failure of drug control, Obama is using it as an excuse for an equally vain attempt at gun control.

“More than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States,” Obama claimed, repeating a favorite factoid of politicians who believe American gun rights endanger our southern neighbor’s security. The claim has been parroted by many news organizations, including ABC, which used it in a 2008 story that suggested the sort of policy changes the number is meant to encourage. The story, which asked if “the Second Amendment [is] to blame” for “arming Mexican drug gangs,” quoted an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives who said, “It’s virtually impossible to buy a firearm in Mexico as a private citizen, so this country is where they come.”

But as Fox News and have shown, the percentage cited by the president greatly exaggerates the share of guns used by Mexican criminals that were bought in the United States. Fox estimates it’s less than a fifth, while says it may be more like a third.

If the guns used by Mexican drug traffickers do not mainly come from gun dealers in the U.S., where do they come from? Many of the weapons are stolen from the Mexican military and police, often by deserters; some are smuggled over the border from Guatemala; others come from China by way of Africa or Latin America. Russian gun traffickers do a booming business in Mexico.

Given these alternatives, making it harder for Americans to buy guns is not likely to stop Mexican gangsters from arming themselves. The persistence of the drug traffickers’ main business, which consists of transporting and selling products that are entirely illegal on both sides of the border, should give pause to those who think they can block the flow of guns to the cartels.

The futile effort to stop Americans from consuming politically incorrect intoxicants is the real source of the violence in Mexico, since prohibition creates a market with artificially high prices and hands it over to criminals. “Because of the enormous profit potential,” two senior federal law enforcement officials told the Senate Judiciary Committee in March, “violence has always been associated with the Mexican drug trade as criminal syndicates seek to control this lucrative endeavor.”

The more the government cracks down on the black market it created, the more violence it fosters, since intensified enforcement provokes confrontations with the police and encourages fighting between rival gangs over market opportunities created by arrests or deaths. “If the drug effort were failing,” an unnamed “senior U.S. official” told The Wall Street Journal in February, “there would be no violence.”

Perhaps it is time to redefine failure. Three former Latin American presidents, including Mexico’s Ernesto Zedillo, recently noted that “we are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs.” The attempt to achieve that impossible dream, they observed, has led to “a rise in organized crime,” “the corruption of public servants,” “the criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime,” and “a growth in unacceptable levels of drug-related violence.”

Instead of importing Mexico’s prohibitionist approach to guns, we should stop exporting our prohibitionist approach to drugs.

Whenever anyone starts talking about ending the war on drugs you will hear several kinds of basic objections. One is very personal. "I lost my son/daughter or other loved one to drugs and I'll always want to see them stamped out so that no one else has to go through what I/my loved one went through.

This is understandable but far more people die every year because they were driving too fast than because they took drugs. Far more people die from eating a bad diet and from alcohol than from illegal drugs. Do we install speed governors on all cars sold in America that keep them from being driven over 50 miles-per-hour? Do we ban McDonald's and Burger King? Do we bring back the disaster of alcohol prohibition?

It is tragic that some people destroy their lives with drugs but making laws which affect our entire society and which ". . . [lead] to “a rise in organized crime,” “the corruption of public servants,” “the criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime,” and “a growth in unacceptable levels of drug-related violence.” is to take that tragedy and compound it by many orders of magnitude.

Another objection, which comes mainly from the law enforcement community, is that so many police officers have died fighting the drug war that it would seem a betrayal of their memories to give up on the war now. The answer to that is to ask how many more officers have to die fighting a war which cannot possibly won. How many more widows and orphans must be created before we admit that drugs are with us to stay? Every "success" we score in the drug war - every drug shipment seized and every drug lord jailed - only raises the price, and therefore the profits, of illegal drugs and draws ever more ruthless and violent men into the drug trade.

legalizing drugs would take the drug trade out of the hands of criminals and put it into the hands of legitimate businessmen, the kind of men who battle their competitors with advertising campaigns rather than private armies armed with modern military hardware. Of course some of the drug running criminals will make the transition from criminal to legitimate businessman (like Joe Kennedy at the end of prohibition), but wouldn't we rather have them as tax-paying citizens who settle any disputes with the legal system with lawyers and courts rather than land mines and rocket launchers?

Another argument against drug legalization is that our society will be destroyed or at least damaged by rampant drug use. The argument assumes that so many people will stop being productive citizens if they have legal access to drugs that the fabric of our modern technological society will unravel. Humorist Dave Barry's comment on that line of thought is this, "we have to have a law against f*cking dogs because if we don't then everyone will run out and start f*ucking dogs".

The fact that alcohol is perfectly legal and carries none of the stigma associated with narcotics - yet the vast majority of us manage to avoid becoming derelicts on Skid Row should be enough to refute that line of reasoning.

The fact is that if drugs are legalized there will be some tragic outcomes. Some people who would not have otherwise tried them will and some of them will be come addicted and ruin their lives. Some of those people who would not have otherwise tried drugs in the first place will drive under the influence and wipe out entire families in car accidents. Some will become violent and murder members of their families or police officers or strangers on the street and some will kill only themselves. Some families will be torn apart. Some mothers/fathers/sons/daughters/wives/husbands will be bereaved.

But we need to remember that we are a fallen race and therefore a perfect outcome is impossible for us to achieve. The question is not whether some will suffer if the drug war ends but will the suffering be greater if it continues.

I believe that the answer to that question is yes. The suffering, pain, death and other assorted tragedies spawned by the efforts to stamp out drugs are greater than those caused by the drugs themselves.