I am convinced there is no perfect solution to the drug problem. Whatever course Mexico and the United States take, there will be costs and benefits. The trick is to weigh the alternatives to determine if the current policy provides the most benefits with the least associated costs –- or whether some other option would be better.
Here are some additional facts everyone should be able to accept.
- People use drugs because they like the immediate results. That is one reason you do not see 8-year olds mainlining broccoli.
- Young people will continue to use drugs –- whether the drugs are legal or illegal. See fact #1.
- Drug usage results in huge personal and social costs. Methamphetamine users do not seek that hollow-cheek, sallow look. It just comes with the drug package.
- Drugs no longer merely pass through Mexico. Mexican youth are more than happy to adopt American drug habits –- and have.
- Any substance or object the government declares to be illegal will command high prices. Just ask Castro how much it costs to restrict free speech.
- Illegal substances that produce high profit margins will attract organized crime. Don Corleone’s wealth and power were not based on the Coney Island Coke concession (unless you take out the capitalizations).
The question is how much are we willing to pay for what benefit?
We could try the Cuba model (pictured above). What is going on right now in Mexico and the United States is a variant of that model. Cuba outlaws drugs. In Havana, there is almost literally a policeman on every corner. In every neighborhood, there is a monitor who knows everything that goes on and who is doing what. Cuba does not have much of a drug problem. Of course, it does not have much of anything else, either. And there is quite a difference in opinion between the Cuban leadership and the Cuban people about the attractiveness of the Cuban model.
Before anyone accuses me of committing the error of moral equivalency, I will point out that I am not saying that the current Mexican drug lord eradication is the moral equivalent of the Cuban model. Quite the opposite. Neither the United States nor Mexico have committed anywhere near the amount of resources to match the Cuban model. And morally, such a commitment would be wrong. I have been shocked to read that some Mexican citizens are so upset with the cartels that they would welcome a permanent army and police presence in their neighborhoods. The Cuban model offers high benefits for even higher costs. Mexicans and Americans are not going to pay that price.
There is, of course, the status quo. Some Americans want drugs. Drug cartels are willing to meet the market demand. The American and Mexican governments want to stop the flow of drugs. That angers the cartels –- and the fight ensues. Decapitated bodies. Fatherless families. Bullet-sprayed walls. They are bad enough. But the greater victim is a society that appears to be unraveling where the cartels have their greatest influence. And even if a cartel is broken up, it is just the cost of doing business. A new cartel will appear or another cartel will fill the vacuum.
That model relies on the unfortunate vocabulary of war. No one is really fighting a war against drugs. The war is against drug commerce. And how would we ever know when we have won that type of war? If it is a war, it has the same fuzzy objectives shared by too many modern military adventures. We may as well declare war against being overweight. (Of course, that idea is probably not as outlandish as I think it should be.)
Another option would be to pretend that the problem does not exist. In effect, that is what happened for generations in the United States. And there was more than just a little social and racial discrimination in that attitude. After all, the only drug users lived in public housing or were jazz musicians. Americans got upset only when middle class kids –- or, more accurately, children of middle-class voters –- started using drugs. By that point, organized crime had cornered the drug market and had learned the art of speaking to power with money. (Need I make the point that crime and corruption began first in the United States. Our taste for drugs has merely spread the symptoms.)
Leaders like President Calderón have chosen not to allow their countries to continue down the road to perdition. But, Mexico cannot act alone. It needs help to either fight the drug lords with military power –- or to be the beneficiary of a more radical approach: legalization of drugs in America.
And that will be tomorrow's topic.