Legalizing All Drugs: What If Mexico's Ex-Prez Is Right?

Vicente Fox's plea follows a hopelessly failed war on drugs.

By Crawford Kilian 22 Feb 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Fox: tens of thousands of Mexicans have become victims of an 'insane war against an enemy we can never defeat with the current prohibitions in place.'

Recently Vicente Fox, the ex-president of Mexico, called for the legalization of not only marijuana, but of all drugs.

"Legalization of not just marijuana, but all drugs, is the right thing to do," he wrote in an opinion piece published in the Globe and Mail this week.

"The dramatic war on drugs in Mexico, in which tens of thousands of young Mexicans have been killed, is proof of prohibition's failure. These people were not born criminals; they did not possess criminality in their genes. And yet because of a flawed public policy, because of lack of education and disinformation, because of lack of better economic incentives and opportunities, they became victims of an insane war against an enemy we can never defeat with the current prohibitions in place."

He continued: "If we were to adopt a policy of sound regulation in conjunction with the decriminalization of drugs, then we would have the money (through fees and taxes) to operate education and regulatory initiatives -- as opposed to all of the money from the drug trade being controlled by the drug cartels and the criminals who run them. And we wouldn't have to carry the immense burden of the cost of the war on drugs itself."

Though far from the first to make such a call, Fox's view is informed by his unique perspective: during his term of office (2000-2006) he presided over the start of the drug wars. Under his successor Felipe Calderón, the number of deaths related to the wars soared: from 2,119 in 2006 to 15,273 in 2010, and a total of 47,515 killings as of early 2012.

Worse yet, Mexico, a nation of 100 million, has suffered disastrous corruption of its institutions and economy. Offered a choice by the cartels between "plata o plomo," silver or lead, many politicians, judges, police and military have chosen bribes over bullets. According to Wikipedia, at least 120 Mexican journalists have been killed or have disappeared since 2006 -- most recently, Gregorio Jiménez de la Cruz on Feb. 5, 2014.

All this violence is due to a market that is simply trying to make its American and Canadian customers feel really, really good.

Those customers may also have a really, really good idea of the suffering involved in ensuring their euphoria, but it does not appear to have caused the slightest pang of guilt, much less reduced their demand for illegal drugs.

We've seen this all before, when the prohibited drug was alcohol. Back then, Canadian rumrunners were figures of romance, and violating the 18th Amendment to the U.S. constitution by getting drunk was an act of high-minded civil disobedience.

A desperate grassroots effort

In hindsight, we like to consider alcohol prohibition as a few organized party poopers trying to ruin everyone's fun. At the time, it was a desperate grassroots attempt to stop the vicious abuse of countless wives and children and to save the men abusing them -- whose work was so brutalizing that cheap alcohol was their preferred anesthetic.

We also forget that prohibition worked. Canadian jails had empty drunk tanks. In his history Booze: When Whiskey Ruled the West, Canadian journalist James H. Gray argued that more workers brought home more of their wages than they had in the bad old days.

But prohibition didn't work well enough, and Canadian provinces gradually repealed it -- often replacing it with awkward and tedious state regulation like the B.C. beer parlour, where the sexes drank in separate rooms and no one could stand while holding an ale.

The alcohol wars were fought while countless other drugs were perfectly legal. Sigmund Freud sang the praises of cocaine, derived from a plant that had sustained workers in South America for centuries. If opium was a nuisance, it was also a major source of income for the British Empire, which went to war to impose it on China. Morphine is a component of opium, and heroin is a tweaked form of morphine -- originally promoted as a non-addictive form of morphine and a cough suppressant.

Eventually, these and other drugs underwent their own prohibition. Nevertheless, North Americans have continued to ingest them, and many have found their effects worth repeating at any price -- financial or personal.

The failure of anti-drug propaganda

Anti-drug propaganda has been with us since the days of Reefer Madness in the 1930s. In the 1950s, I saw Frank Sinatra kicking heroin cold turkey in the movie The Man With the Golden Arm. At the time, right next door to where we lived on the Santa Monica beach front, a group called Synanon was in the business of cleaning up junkies and inviting the neighbours in to meet their latest guests going cold turkey, too. (But everyone smoked like chimneys, and within a few years Synanon turned into a cult.)

Despite decades more of such propaganda, illegal drugs have grown into one of the greatest industries on the planet. As I write this on a late February evening, Worldometers indicates that today's world spending on illegal drugs is closing in on $1 billion. In the first seven weeks of 2014, such spending was well beyond $55 billion. (In the same period, over 350,000 people died of alcohol.)

A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money. No wonder drug cartels will offer lead or silver to anyone who gets in their way, and generally get silver as their answer. Obviously these drugs fill a hole in some people's souls, however briefly, and for that those people are prepared to spend fortunes.

In response, the world's governments have enslaved themselves to the drug industry. They have created enormous police bureaucracies to fight the drug merchants. In 2013, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration employed 11,053 people and spent a budget of $2.771 billion -- about three days' worth of world spending on illegal drugs. An estimated 31 million Americans have been arrested on drug charges, creating a large number of jobs in the courts and the penal system.

We can assume that the RCMP and other Canadian police agencies have proportionate staff and budgets. We can also assume that Canadian governments spend much of their public health budgets on dealing with the consequences. As a Vancouver paramedic says on the TV program Emergency Room: Life + Death at VGH, "On a daily basis we deal with drugs and alcohol in some aspect."

If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em out

Nations around the world have tried everything to deter the drug trade, from gentle rehabilitation to beheading, without effect. Vicente Fox's argument is that if you can't beat them, buy them out. Take over the business, become the middleman between producers and consumers, sell drugs in reasonably safe form, and skim off a nice slab of tax revenues that would otherwise go to the cartels. (Of course, you might have to pay off a lot of cartel personnel, if only to prevent them from blowing up legal drug outlets.)

Several U.S. states are now experimenting with legal drug-dealing; Colorado expects to make over $100 million this year from its tax on marijuana. Uruguay, under its president José Mujica, is doing something very similar.

The attraction of taxing the daylights out of a captive market of addicts is not lost on most politicians; they do it with tobacco, and they run lotteries after generations of opposing gambling. It's easy to imagine legal marijuana (and then other drugs) in one jurisdiction after another, with everyone free to get high or not. The revenue stream would simply go into government accounts, not those of the cartels.

But those revenues would still have to pay for cops and paramedics and social workers. Some dealers would sell cheaper, untaxed drugs, and would find a ready market. New synthetic drugs with nasty consequences might make it onto the market as well, creating new problems in public health. The jails wouldn't empty, and people would still die from drug misuse or abuse.

So while I respect Vicente Fox's courage in taking his position, the best that can be said for it is that all-out legalization is a form of harm reduction. It would reduce the carnage and personal and social damage, but it would not eliminate them.

That dream will not come true until we find out what makes the hole in the human soul that drugs pretend to fill up.  [Tyee]

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