Update 1/8/16: I no longer entirely agree with my position in this post. While I think decriminalization is a good first step, I now think that widespread federal descheduling of Marijuana is a better policy. See my most recent post entitled Legalizing Marijuana: The Road to Security South of the Border.
Back in 2010 I wrote a post, which is formatted horribly on my current theme, entitled Drugs Legal? Yes! wherein I argued for the complete legalization of all drugs. While I still think the argument I made is valid and impacts of illegality are real, I have changed my position. I think, at best, marijuana should be decriminalized, not legalized (I don’t know my political opinion on other drugs).
Thus in this post, I will make my case against legalization in favor of decriminalization.
Legalization: a general policy orientation involves the lifting of all criminal and civil proscriptions and sanctions (x);
Decriminalization: the repeal or amendment (undoing) of statutes which made certain acts criminal, so that those acts no longer are crimes or subject to prosecution (x);
The United States federal government will not legalize all drugs anytime soon, if ever, but there is a real chance and a push for the overall legalization of marijuana. Thus the assumption that the rest of this post will work off of is that the only currently illicit drug that will be legalized (or have a serious attempt made at legalizing) in the near future would be marijuana.
So, I’ll see you after the jump!
Drug cartels are bad news. They employ teenage hitmen, torture and execute women, kill thousands of people, kidnap tons more, and all around destabilize a country. Basically, most people would agree that drug cartels are horrible organizations and Mexican citizens are actively forming vigilante groups to drive them out of towns.
In my post four years ago, I argued that with the legalization of drugs, the power of cartels would drop because people would no longer need to rely on the black market. While this logic still holds true, it only holds true if ALL drugs are legalized, not just some. For you see, if just some are legalized, then that cuts into the illegal profits for that specific drug and the cartels just shift to growing and selling more dangerous drugs and in turn become more violent. And therein lies the crux of my coming argument – that a policy of legalization of marijuana makes it less profitable for cartels and thus they shift their efforts to more dangerous drugs such as heroine or other opiates.
Before I continue, however, I feel like I must address a comment that is sure to arise. I am sure that someone, after reading the last two paragraphs, would think/say “well, if cartels are bad and if legalization takes money away from them ultimately bankrupting them, isn’t legalization a good thing?” In theory, yes. But the fact is, that would require total legalization of all drugs (which is something that would not happen and brings with it its own set of problems reserved for another post) because if only some are legalized, then cartels will shift production to other illicit substances.
Following this, one might say “well if you’re not legalizing drugs, you’re keeping the profit in them for the cartels and thus supporting the cartels”. The answer to this “not question question” is ‘kinda’. If it’s a choice between cartels selling marijuana or cartels selling harder drugs, I’d rather the former. But in addition to that, I would support a war on drugs that uses integrated approaches and targets the cartels as opposed to American citizens who are using the drugs. The current policy targets the wrong people and does nothing to solve the drug problem overall because cartels are left standing. Ideally, inter-governmental cooperation would ensue and action would be taken against cartels.
But now that that issue is hopefully resolved, let’s get to the meat of the post (and remember the assumption and definitions I laid out above).
The legalization of marijuana will have two effects on drug cartels. First, it will create an incentive for some to move further into the continental United States and second, it will force others to stop growing marijuana in favor of other, more dangerous substances.
The legalization of marijuana, specifically in Colorado, raises interesting questions of what drug cartels that cannot shift to other substances will do and where they will go. Sadly, the evidence indicates that they will migrate north into the United States and set up shop among American civilians. Just last year, Colorado saw raids on businesses with evidence connecting them to Colombian cartels operating both abroad and in Colorado itself. This issue arose because Colorado businesses were legally allowed to sell marijuana but didn’t automatically have the growing power or knowledge needed and thus teamed up with cartels. This fact is further bolstered by statements made by Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, when he indicated that the legalization of marijuana provided the perfect incentive for Colombian cartels to move north. In answer to an interviewer’s question of “[w]hat, if anything, are you seeing happening in Colorado?”, Gorman responded with
…there is a real high demand for Colorado marijuana throughout the United States. One of the primary weapons of a cartel they use to make money is, one, selling drugs, and the other one is extortion. So it’s real easy for them to come in and look at these retail stores that are making hundreds of thousands of dollars and say we want a piece of the action. (x)
Gorman indicates that currently there is a “perfect storm” scenario wherein cartels can easily set up shop in states where marijuana is legal and then expand outward within the United States. What’s more, Gorman has indicated that due to the ruthlessness of cartels, there is the very real worry of violence and intimidation against legal businesses.
Interestingly enough, it’s not just Colorado that is affected. Executives from the Chicago Crime Commission have indicated that there is an increased cartel presence both in Illinois and other non-border states. The officials warn that, if left unchecked, the situation will just get worse and the cartels in the United States will expand operations.
But that is just the start of the issue. What’s much worse is that once marijuana is legalized, citizens can purchase it in the United States from “All American” companies thus cutting into the profits of foreign cartels because local dealers no longer need to buy abroad. This drop in profits encourages a shift away from the growing of cannabis and towards the growing of poppies and other narcotics.
In fact, studies indicate that the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington has slashed the overall profits of cartels by over 30% and on the consumer side the price of Marijuana has dropped from $100/kg to less than $25/kg. This is no small change, in fact farmers within Mexico’s “Golden Triangle” in the Sinaloa state (the area responsible for the largest marijuana yields) say that growing marijuana is “…not worth it anymore” because there’s no profit margin. Some famous farmers, specifically Rodrigo Silla, have said “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization” (x). These sentiments, backed up by dropping prices, go hand in hand with the decrease in marijuana production by farmers.
Given that, Policy Mic asks an important question and that is “[w]hat are these drug farmers growing instead?” They answer the question very simply with the following:
Heroin. Farmers aren’t just sitting back and resigning themselves to failure. They’re drastically changing their growing habits. Authorities are seeing a dramatic number of poppy farms popping up, replacing what used to be marijuana farms. Consequently, the cartels are transporting lots of heroin north from Mexico into the U.S. (x) (note: the Policy Mic article uses the word “decriminalization” incorrectly)
On the trafficking side of things, in 2013 U.S. authorities captured 2,162 kilos of heroin at the border (which is a new record), more than five times the amount captured in 2007 (x).
(Note: this is just the amount that has been captured, there is a ton that gets through which contributes to the 79% increase in usage over the past five years)
That is an insane amount and has contributed to the rise of at least seven different violent cartels linked to tens of thousands of deaths. To quote the Policy Mic article, and I will comment on their incorrect use of the word “decriminalization” after the quotation,:
[Cartels have] lost out on some capital from aspects of the recent cannabis legalization in several U.S. states, but they are betting big on emerging and growing poppy farms. Sadly, that means that the decriminalization of weed is indirectly paving the way for a much more dangerous drug inside U.S. borders. (x)
Before continuing, however, I would like to comment on the above article’s use of the word “decriminalization”. “Decriminalization”, as defined above, is “the repeal or amendment (undoing) of statutes which made certain acts criminal, so that those acts no longer are crimes or subject to prosecution” (x). The article is not talking about decriminalization, rather about legalization. What’s more, there have only been a handful of attempts to decriminalize marijuana in the United States and these haven’t caused the trade off I’m talking about because those efforts have been focused on small scale possession and usage, not large scale selling for recreational use which is what the legalization movement is calling for.
At this point, sadly, one will undoubtedly ask “well what’s so bad about the rise in heroin growth and use?” Well, apart from the obvious issues of cartels becoming more violent and leading to the impacts above, heroin is a uniquely dangerous and horrible drug both because of the ungodly number of overdoses as well as the number of new HIV and other STD instances.
Specifically, 150,000 new heroin users arise each year and about 14% of all ER visits are due to heroin overdose or addiction. What’s worse, statistically speaking 100 people will die from an overdose each day and over 30,000 die each year, 75% of which are opioid related. And the good news keeps coming. Studies indicate that for every fatal overdose there are between 25 and 50 “near misses” – that is, people coming critically close to overdosing. In fact, a meta-analysis published in The Lancet found that heroin is ranked as the most dangerous drug…followed by another cartel favorite, cocaine.
In terms of HIV and other STDs, the CDC reports that, at least in 2009, 9% of new HIV infections occurred in people who inject drugs intravenously (and this is ignoring the subsequent sharing of needles and unprotected sex which occurs after the initial infection). What’s more, the trend between new hepatitis C patients, and intravenous drug use is undeniable. Studies show that in 2010, 53% of new hepatitis C patients were intravenous drug users and that these numbers just rise and rise.
At this point, I’ll stop bombing you with numbers and say the following: in short, heroin leads to some really really bad shit and the 79% increase in heroin use is making all that worse.
So what do we do? Well, the current War on Drugs focuses mainly on users and small time dealers within the United States while either ignoring international cartels, financing them, or protecting poppy fields. It has targeted the wrong people and been a waste of money for decades. The focus on locking up drug users as opposed to drug suppliers does nothing to keep our streets clean and while legalizing marijuana may seem like a good idea on the surface, it will be a failure as well. So while I do not support the current War on Drugs, I do support some kind of War on Drugs, and while I do not support the legalization of marijuana, I support reforming our policy towards it.
Thus, I propose a two pronged solution acting both domestically and internationally. Domestically I would advocate not for legalization, but decriminalization with an amendment to current drug laws. Specifically, I argue that
- the possession and personal use of marijuana should not be a crime,
- the giving or selling of small amounts of marijuana to someone over the age of 21 should not be a crime,
- the growing of small amounts of marijuana should not be a crime,
- and the individual purchasing marijuana, regardless of the amount they purchase, should not be convicted of a crime.
What should be crimes are
- the selling of large amounts of marijuana,
- the operating of a motor vehicle while under the influence,
- the selling or giving of marijuana to persons under the age of 21,
- and the smuggling of marijuana across international borders.
Internationally I would not advocate the current War on Drugs, but a revised War on Drugs. Specifically, the Mexican government has proven time and time again that their military is unable to deal with the cartel problem alone and multiple studies show that the Mexican citizens overwhelmingly want U.S. military support in dealing with the issue. Additionally, Mexican vigilante groups are fed up with the status quo and are taking matters into their own hands thus proving the need for a new policy.
Now anyone that has been following my blog for some length of time should know that I almost always am opposed to U.S. military intervention…but in the case of Mexico where more than 50% of the citizenry supports more U.S. military help and more than 25% support U.S. boots on the ground operations in Mexico, I can safely advocate for a stronger United States role in taking out drug cartels. (x)
While the capture of the world’s most notorious drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, by U.S. and Mexican special forces was fantastic, the United States military can step up its game. We should stop trying to “liberate” countries that don’t want us (eg. Iraq and Afghanistan) and instead focus on helping the people who actually ask for our assistance (eg. the majority of Mexicans). Shift military spending away from wars in the Middle East and towards an integrated U.S.-Mexico policy of capture and destabilization of leading drug cartels through the use of special forces and military operations.
This two pronged solution should deal with the advocates of marijuana legalization by giving them most of what they want without causing a massive shift in drug production by cartels as well as taking an offensive posture against the heart of the beast – the cartels themselves. Your local pothead is not the enemy, Los Zetas, Knights Templar, and Sinaloa are.