In a just released special report, the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations has called on the US government to entertain serious drug reforms, including allowing states to experiment with marijuana legalization, as part of an effort to get a handle on violent Mexican drug trafficking organizations.
The report, The Drug War in Mexico: Confronting a Shared Threat, is authored by David Shirk, professor of political science and director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. Shirk is a leading scholar on US-Mexican relations.
Shirk describes the growth of the so-called cartels, the Mexican state’s response, and the US’s role as consumer of drugs and supplier of cash and weapons, and prescribes a number of measures that would make for a more effective fight against the cartels. But he also makes clear that a “smarter” war on drugs may be necessary, but is not the ultimate answer to the problems generated by drug prohibition.
“Mexico’s security crisis illustrates the limitations of current anti-drug strategies and offers an opportunity to shift the paradigm to a more sensible approach,” Shirk wrote. “Over the last four decades, the war on drugs has lacked clear, consistent, or achievable objectives; has had little effect on aggregate demand; and has imposed an enormous social and economic cost. A state-driven, supply-side, and penalty-based approach has failed to curb market production, distribution, and consumption of drugs. The assumption that punishing suppliers and users can effectively combat a large market for illicit drugs has proven to be utterly false. Rather, prohibition bestows enormous profits on traffickers, criminalizes otherwise law-abiding users and addicts, and imposes enormous costs on society.”
Drug legalization should be on the table, Shirk concluded after listing possible negative effects, including drug traffickers shifting to other areas of illicit opportunity and increased drug use leading to increased use-related harms:
“Any effort to legalize drugs would need to proceed with careful study, ample deliberation, and due caution. Yet, with or without legalization, authorities should work with greater urgency and focus to develop public health and law enforcement measures to prevent, treat, and reduce the harms associated with drug consumption,” Shirk wrote. “In the end, treating drug consumption and organized crime as separate problems will make it possible to address both more effectively. To make this possible–and before other countries or even some US states venture further down the road toward drug legalization–the US federal government should move quickly to examine the current approach and chart a course toward a more effective drug policy.”
Shifter and the CFC had three specific recommendations for US drug policy, here quoted verbatim:
Reevaluate US Drug Policy
The US Congress should commission an independent advisory group to examine the fiscal and social impacts of drug legalization as well as other alternative approaches to the war on drugs. The commission should be provided adequate funding–at least $2 million–to provide a comprehensive review of existing policies and develop realistic, clearly defined, and achievable policy recommendations for reducing the harms caused by drug consumption and abuse.
Shift US Counter-Drug Priorities to Focus on Major Sources of Illicit Income
To allow policy experimentation, the federal government should permit states to legalize the production, sale, taxation, and consumption of marijuana. While testing this policy shift, authorities should redirect scarce law enforcement resources to focus on the more damaging and socially unacceptable drugs (like heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine) from which Mexican DTOs derive more than 70 percent of their drug proceeds.
Lead International Efforts on Drug Policy Reform
The United States should lead the international dialogue on the future of international drug policy by collaborating directly with other countries in the Americas to develop alternative policy approaches to reduce the harm caused by drugs. Specifically, the United States and Mexico should work together in promoting the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission’s “New Hemispheric Drug Strategy,” with an emphasis on protections for basic human rights, evidence-based drug policy, and a public health approach to drug abuse.
People have been knocking bricks from the wall of drug prohibition for some time now, but this report from the CFR should help to accelerate the process.