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November 10, 2010: News, Research & Events from the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy
Baker Institute Update: Should the war on the drugs go up in smoke?
Should the war on the drugs go up in smoke?

Millions of marijuana plants eradicated. Thousands of drug traffickers arrested. Dozens of important crime figures indicted. The costly U.S. "war on drugs" has produced some impressive results -- but 40 years after its launch, illegal drug use in America is on the rise, supply continues to meet demand and drug-related violence is even more brutal and widespread.

"The successes of the war on drugs have been few and impermanent," writes William Martin, the institute's Harry and Hazel Chavanne Senior Fellow in Religion and Public Policy, in a new report that examines the fallout from America's drug policies. "Authorities at the local, state and national levels are calling for a comprehensive and open-minded examination of alternatives to drug policies notable for repeated failure."

In "Cartels, Corruption, Carnage, and Cooperation," Martin underscores a hard truth about the drug market: Tighter enforcement paves the way to higher prices, which lead to greater cultivation and more traffickers -- resulting in increased availability of drugs. This cycle has been aggravated by the growing violence of the drug traffickers, prompting claims that Mexico is in danger of becoming a failed state. While "the country does not meet accepted criteria for that status, narco-cartels have superseded or seriously weakened legitimate government in a growing number of Mexican states."

Mexican President Felipe Calderon's aggressive assault on Mexican traffickers has weakened some cartels and put all on the defensive, "but the cartels have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to adversity, and the level of violence has soared beyond all experience or expectation, with no end in sight," Martin adds. "In keeping with its long-standing confidence in the efficacy of force, the United States has enforced and supported President Calderon's strategy."

Martin, who leads the institute's Drug Policy Program, offers several policy recommendations for how to address the current dilemma. He argues that Mexico should demilitarize the fight against drug traffickers because in a democracy, the task is best left to police. Corruption on both sides of the border must be contained by building a professional law enforcement system, punishing corrupt officials, and instituting higher pay and tighter screening for members of the civil service, police and judiciary. In addition, both countries need to "improve educational and employment opportunities, so that young people in particular do not turn to drugs and crime because they have abandoned hope of achieving a meaningful life by legal means."

Martin also calls for a wholesale change in laws governing illegal drugs. "The United States should legalize marijuana and decriminalize possession of most other now-illicit drugs," he writes. "A system of legal production and sales, regulated and taxed in a manner similar to alcohol and tobacco, would dam [the] river of cash to murderous criminals, reduce the ability of the cartels to corrupt government on both sides of the border, and, in the process, provide a major source of funds to pay for drug education and treatment."

The United States has been called on to acknowledge that its war on drugs has failed and to give serious consideration to diverse alternatives, Martin says. "This message has been received. In her first visit to Mexico as secretary of state, in 2009, Hillary Clinton acknowledged that 'the insatiable demand for illegal drugs [in the United States] fuels the drug trade.' Similarly, the newly appointed director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, has announced that he no longer wants to be known as the 'Drug Czar' and is abandoning the rhetoric of a war on drugs in favor of greater emphasis on prevention and treatment."

In what could signal another shift in thinking about U.S. drug policy, an initiative that would have legalized small amounts of marijuana use statewide appeared on the California ballot earlier this month. Although voters rejected the initiative, called Proposition 19, "it helped put the debate on drug policy in the mainstream of American politics," Martin said. "The decriminalization of marijuana has become a topic for national consideration. It will likely come up again." Martin added that Proposition 19 was also significant because "it was supported by both the NAACP and the LULAC, which recognize that although usage rates among African-Americans, Hispanics and Anglos are quite similar, criminal penalties are far more likely to fall upon minorities than upon whites."

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The James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy is a nonpartisan public policy think tank located on the campus of Rice University in Houston, Texas. The institute's distinguished fellows and scholars research and collaborate with experts from academia, government, the media, business and private organizations on domestic and foreign policy issues with the goal of bridging the gap between the theory and practice of public policy.
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