How to End Mexico's Deadly Drug War

Albert Einstein declared, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” He wasn’t describing the federal government’s nearly century-long war on drugs but he might as well have been.

Despite ample lip-service for “hope” and “change,” the Obama administration’s cynical response to the escalating drug prohibition-related violence around the Mexican border epitomizes Einstein’s oft-quoted observation.

Since 2008 more than 7,000 people—over 1,000 last January alone, including Mexican civilians, journalists, police, and public officials—have been killed in clashes with warring drug traffickers. Wire-service reports estimate that Mexico’s drug lords employ over 100,000 soldiers—approximately as many as the Mexican army—and that the cartels’ wealth, intimidation, and influence extend to the highest echelons of law enforcement and government. Where do the cartels get their unprecedented wealth and power? By trafficking in illicit drugs—primarily marijuana—over the border into the United States.

The U.S. Office of Drug Control Policy (more commonly known as the drug czar’s office) says more than 60 percent of the profits reaped by Mexican drug lords are derived from the exportation and sale of cannabis to the American market. To anyone who has studied the marijuana issue, this figure should come as no surprise. An estimated 100 million Americans age 12 or older—or about 43 percent of the country—admit to having tried pot, a higher percentage, according to the World Health Organization, than any other country on the planet. Twenty-five million Americans admit (on government surveys, no less) to smoking marijuana during the past year, and 15 million say that they indulge regularly. This high demand, combined with the drug’s artificially inflated black-market value (pot possession has been illegal under federal law since 1937), now makes cannabis America’s top cash crop.

In fact, according to a 2007 analysis by George Mason University professor Jon Gettman, the annual retail value of the U.S. marijuana market is some $113 billion.

How much of this goes directly to Mexican cartels is difficult to quantify, but no doubt the percentage is significant. Government officials estimate that approximately half the marijuana consumed in the United States originates from outside its borders, and they have identified Mexico as far and away America’s largest pot provider. Because Mexican-grown marijuana tends to fetch lower prices on the black market than domestically grown weed (a result attributed largely to lower production costs—the Mexican variety tends to be grown outdoors, while an increasing percentage of American-grown pot is produced hydroponically indoors), it remains consistently popular among U.S. consumers, particularly in a down economy. As a result, U.S. law officials now report that some Mexican cartels are moving to the United States to set up shop permanently. A Congressional Research Service report says low-level cartel members are now establishing clandestine growing operations inside the United States (thus eliminating the need to cross the border), as well as partnering with domestic gangs and other criminal enterprises. A March 23 New York Times story speculated that Mexican drug gangs or their affiliates are now active in some 230 U.S. cities, extending from Tucson, Arizona, to Anchorage, Alaska.

In short, America’s multibillion-dollar demand for pot is fueling the Mexican drug trade and much of the turf battles and carnage associated with it.

Same Old “Solutions”

So what are the administration’s plans to quell the cartels’ growing influence and surging violence? Troublingly, the White House appears intent on recycling the very strategies that gave rise to Mexico’s infamous drug lords in the first place.

In March the administration requested $700 million from Congress to “bolster existing efforts by Washington and Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s administration to fight violent trafficking in drugs . . . into the United States.” These efforts, as described by the Los Angeles Times, include: “vowing to send U.S. money, manpower, and technology to the southwestern border” and “reducing illegal flows (of drugs) in both directions across the border.” The administration also announced that it intends to clamp down on the U.S. demand for illicit drugs by increasing funding for drug treatment and drug courts.

There are three primary problems with this strategy.

First, marijuana production is a lucrative business that attracts criminal entrepreneurs precisely because it is a black-market (and highly sought after) commodity. As long as pot remains federally prohibited its retail price to the consumer will remain artificially high, and its production and distribution will attract criminal enterprises willing to turn to violence (rather than the judicial system) to maintain their slice of the multi-billion-dollar pie.

Second, the United States is already spending more money on illicit-drug law enforcement, drug treatment, and drug courts than at any time in our history. FBI data show that domestic marijuana arrests have increased from under 300,000 annually in 1991 to over 800,000 today. Police seizures of marijuana have also risen dramatically in recent years, as has the amount of taxpayer dollars federal officials have spent on so-called “educational efforts” to discourage the drug’s use. (For example, since the late 1990s Congress has appropriated well over a billion dollars in anti-pot public service announcements alone.) Yet despite these combined efforts to discourage demand, Americans use more pot than anyone else in the world.

Third, law enforcement’s recent attempts to crack down on the cartels’ marijuana distribution rings, particularly new efforts launched by the Calderón administration in Mexico, are driving the unprecedented wave in Mexican violence—not abating it. The New York Times states: “A crackdown begun more than two years ago by President Felipe Calderón, coupled with feuds over turf and control of the organizations, has set off an unprecedented wave of killings in Mexico. . . . Many of the victims were tortured. Beheadings have become common.” Because of this escalating violence, Mexico now ranks behind only Pakistan and Iran as the administration’s top international security concern.

Despite the rising death toll, drug war hawks at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) remain adamant that the United States’ and Mexico’s “supply side” strategies are in fact successful. “Our view is that the violence we have been seeing is a signpost of the success our very courageous Mexican counterparts are having,” acting DEA administrator Michele Lionhart said recently. “The cartels are acting out like caged animals, because they are caged animals.” President Obama also appears to share this view. After visiting with the Calderón government in April, he told CNN he intended to “beef up” security on the border. When asked whether the administration would consider alternative strategies, such as potentially liberalizing pot’s criminal classification, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano replied that such an option “is not on the table.”

A New Remedy

By contrast the Calderón administration appears open to the idea of legalizing marijuana—or at least reducing criminal sanctions on the possession of small quantities of drugs—as a way to stem the tide of violence. Last spring Mexican lawmakers made the possession of personal-use quantities of cannabis and other illicit substances a noncriminal offense. And in April Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, told CBS’s Face the Nation that legalizing the marijuana trade was a legitimate option for both the Mexican and U.S. governments. “[T]hose who would suggest that some of these measures [legalization] be looked at understand the dynamics of the drug trade,” Sarukhan said.

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox recently echoed Sarukhan’s remarks, as did a commission of former Latin American presidents. “I believe it’s time to open the debate over legalizing drugs,” Fox told CNN in May. “It can’t be that the only way [to try to control illicit drug use] is for the state to use force.”

Writing recently on, Harvard economist and Freeman contributor Jeffrey Miron said that ending drug prohibition—on both sides of the border—is the only realistic and viable way to put a permanent stop to the rising power and violence associated with Mexico’s drug traffickers. “Prohibition creates violence because it drives the drug market underground,” he wrote. “This means buyers and sellers cannot resolve their disputes with lawsuits, arbitration or advertising, so they resort to violence instead. . . . The only way to reduce violence, therefore, is to legalize drugs.”

Growing Support

Americans’ support for legalizing the regulated production and sale of cannabis—an option that would not likely rid the world of cartels, but would arguably reduce their primary source of income—is at all an all-time high. In May a national Zogby telephone poll of 3,937 voters by the Republican-leaning O’Leary Report discovered, for the first time ever, that a slight majority (52 percent) of Americans “favor the legalization of marijuana.” A separate Zogby poll reported even stronger support (58 percent) among west-coast voters.

Predictably, critics of marijuana legalization claim that such a strategy would do little to undermine drug traffickers’ profit margins because cartels would simply supplement their revenues by selling greater quantities of other illicit drugs. Although this scenario sounds plausible in theory, it appears to be far less likely in practice.

As noted, Mexican drug lords derive an estimated 60 to 70 percent of their illicit income from pot sales. (By comparison, only about 28 percent of their profits are derived from the distribution of cocaine, and less than 1 percent comes from trafficking methamphetamine.) It is unrealistic to think that cartels could feasibly replace this void by stepping up their sales of cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin—all of which remain far less popular among U.S. drug consumers anyway. Just how much less? U.S. Department of Health and Human Services survey data show that roughly two million Americans use cocaine, compared to 15 million for pot. Fewer than 600,000 use methamphetamine, and fewer than 155,000 use heroin. In short, this is hardly the sort of demand that would keep Mexico’s drug barons in the lucrative lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed.

Of course, it’s unrealistic to think that pot legalization would wipe out prohibition-inspired violence altogether. After all, ending alcohol prohibition in America didn’t single-handedly put the Mafia out of business (though it greatly reduced its power and influence). And it’s always possible that Mexico’s drug cartels would continue to engage in violent acts toward one another as competing factions fought over the crumbs of America’s drastically shrunken illicit-drug market.

That said, it’s equally unrealistic, if not more so, to think that continuing our same failed drug war policies will do anything but exponentially increase the catastrophe they’ve spawned, both in Mexico and at home. It’s time to engage in a different strategy. It’s time to seriously consider legalizing marijuana and other drugs.