Is President Obama keeping the Sinaloa drug cartel in business?
Here’s the news from today, according to the New York Times: 1,200 members of the National Guard have been sent to the border to “combat drug smuggling.” More drug-related violence can only be dealt with through greater enforcement, goes the Bush-McCain-and-now-Obama story. We’ve got to fight the war on drugs; to fight the drug criminals; to save the people from violence.
There’s just one flaw in this story: it’s got the causality going in the wrong direction. US drug policy is the cause of the current epidemic of violence and lawlessness in northern Mexico and along the border, not the cure for it. The more resources we devote to enforcing our drug prohibition, the higher we drive prices, the bigger the incentives to smuggle drugs, the bigger the spoils for the gangs of lawless criminals to whom we redirect the unimaginable profits of several massive, centuries-old industries, and the more these gangs will be willing to fight to the death over pieces of that enormous black-market pie.
By legislating common drugs out of the legal marketplace, we are creating a black market out of thin air. It is not hyperbole to suggest that US law is not just providing a subsidy of billions to the Sinaloa cartel—our laws have actually legislated the cartel, and its rivals, into existence.
Who stands to lose the most if we legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana and cocaine, and open these industries to legitimate companies? The Sinaloa cartel. We devote $11 billion of military and law enforcement resources to eliminating their competition and maintaining their monopoly power—and thus their staggering profits. They are probably the foremost advocates of the current US drug policy. Their worst nightmare would be for the marijuana industry to turn into something like tobacco: low-margin, heavily regulated, taxed, nonviolent, unglamorous, highly competitive, unable to command a risk premium. When was the last time you heard about a tobacco gang shooting?
The effects of US drug policy have never been felt more tragically in northern Mexico, where turf wars between rival drug cartels are fought. Ciudad Juárez, where the murder of innocent civilians is as commonplace as a fender-bender, is now confronting the very real prospect of a lost generation of youth—a generation so scared to walk the streets of its own city that it grows up as if in a coma, with fear the only coherent thread of civic life. In Juárez, beheadings are barely newsworthy. Is it any wonder that some of the civilians caught in this warfare would risk their lives to cross the border into the US?
A rational humanitarian policy would contemplate welcoming residents of Ciudad Juárez into the United States as war refugees. Why don’t we do this? Maybe it’s because admitting there’s a war in Mexico might mean confronting the horrifying truth that this war is ours, our failed war on drugs, and the citizens of Juárez, these would-be refugees, are our collateral damage. Washington now seems comfortable with the idea that we own the violence in Baghdad, yet the idea that we own the violence in Juárez is still Washington taboo. We don’t even believe we’re involved.
As Tax Cannabis 2010—a November 2010 referendum to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana—gains steam in California and has a slim lead in public opinion polls, with vast bipartisan support amongst academics (especially social scientists) and medical doctors, it becomes more and more bizarre that the Obama administration, far from being merely mum on the topic, has come out strongly and repeatedly in favor of the current US drug policy. Even most right-wing commentators acknowledge that our drug policy disproportionately affects minorities, imprisoning and disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of minority citizens for private behavior with public health/safety risks that, in the case of marijuana (according to the American Medical Association), are vastly less than those of high-fructose corn syrup.
Let us, as Obama might say, be perfectly clear: our supposedly pro-minority, pro-human-rights, pro-diplomacy president holds the unambiguous position that the importance of preventing Americans from smoking herb dwarfs any concerns about the uncontained numbers of murders, Mexican cities on the brink of civil war, a lost generation in northern Mexico. The administration’s decision not to go after the medical marijuana dispensaries in California now seems like a sleazy handout to his Hollywood hippie base. It is clear that enforcing the marijuana prohibition is of paramount political importance to the administration, and that the DOJ and military intend to be swift and merciless with such enforcement anywhere near our national borders.
Can we use taxpayer money to create and maintain an unprecedented network of interior border checkpoints whose dogs sniff every single person driving along the interstate highways between Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas? Yes, we can. Can we shift the focus of our military forces and allocate thousands of troops from our national guard to hunt down people who want to transport bud across the Sonora desert? Yes, we can. Can we utilize our scarce prison beds and resources to imprison and disenfranchise 600,000 nonviolent Americans for passing joints around their living rooms, even as we furlough and parole murderers and rapists because we don’t have enough room for them? Yes, we can.
Protesting Arizona’s anti-immigrant laws has become fashionable in recent weeks, and it’s been nice to see some normally staid American authority figures (like mayors and police officers) stand up for the rights of Mexicans (and people who look Hispanic) in the US. Now how about an open conversation about the fact that the US drug prohibition has created a violent black market out of thin air and, in the process, brought upon northern Mexico such a scourge of violence that millions of innocent Mexican civilians have lost the basic opportunity to lead safe, civilized lives?
As of today, Obama is no longer a mere heir of the broken US drug policy. He isn’t just carrying on the torch of keeping hundreds of thousands of nonviolent pot smokers in jail for victimless crimes. He’s now doubling down in the war on drugs. He’s increasing the subsidies for the Sinaloa cartel. He’s raising their prices and profits—and incentives to fight over more and more turf—to unprecedented levels.
This is Barack Obama’s war now: the blood of Juárez is on his hands.