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Will Latin America Lead Us Out of the Drug War Morass?

mexico-drugInterestingly enough, it is Latin America that just might end up leading the world, including the United States, out of the drug-war morass in which most countries have plunged during the past 40 years. After four decades of death, economic destruction, political corruption, ruination of lives, torture, gang wars, drug cartels, drug lords, bribery, asset forfeiture, mandatory-minimum sentences, militarization of the border, attacks on privacy, police-state tactics, no-knock raids, warrantless searches, and constant assaults on the Bill of Rights, there just might be light at the end of this dark tunnel, one that unfortunately the U.S. government is, in large part, responsible for.

The Organization of American States has just released a study calling for a serious discussion on the legalization of marijuana. Although the report made no specific proposals, the fact is that legalization, at least of marijuana, is now on the mainstream discussion table more than ever before.

Latin America has an enormous incentive to bring an end to the drug war because, in many ways, it has paid the biggest price in terms of the adverse consequences that the drug war has brought societies everywhere. In Mexico, for example, 70,000 deaths in the last 6 years alone are attributed not to drugs but to the drug war. That is a lot of people. If it hadn’t been for the drug war, those 70,000 lives would not have been snuffed out by drug-war violence. On top of that is the massive, never-ending violence associated with the drug cartels and drug gangs, not to mention the drug-war corruption that is endemic to Latin American political regimes.

Among the various things being discussed is a proposal to leave drug laws in place but simply not enforce them. That would be an absolutely horrible halfway measure, in many ways as bad as the drug war itself. Why? Because it would leave these unsavory organizations, along with the violence and corruption that characterizes them, in existence and as major, active parts of Latin American society.

For 40 years, the ostensible mission of the drug war in Latin America has been to destroy the drug suppliers. But experience has shown that that has been a fool’s errand the entire time. The more they cracked down, as many U.S. drug warriors wanted them to do, the worse things got. Over the decades, whenever drug agents would bust some big drug gang or drug cartel, amidst much fanfare and publicity, it would always be quickly replaced by one or more drug suppliers.

There was a simple reason for this, an economic one. The more they busted drug suppliers, the more they constricted the supply of drugs. Reduced supply means higher prices and higher profits. That would attract new suppliers, oftentimes just poor people trying to make a quick score. There was never any way that the drug war could get rid of drug gangs, drug cartels, drug lords, and other drug suppliers. It was the exact opposite. The more they cracked down, the more they attracted new suppliers.

But there has always been one surefire way to get rid of all the drug lords, drug gangs, and drug cartels, immediately. That’s through the legalization of drugs–all drugs, not just marijuana. That’s because the unsavory elements that currently control the drug trade cannot compete in market that is legal.

In a legal market, reputable firms, most likely pharmaceuticals, will immediately enter the drug market. And they will immediately put out of business, through open competition, the drug lords, drug gangs, and drug cartels, who can effectively operate only in an illegal market, where violence and corruption are normal business practices. By immediately putting the unsavory firms out of business, drug legalization would also bring an immediate end to all the drug-war violence and corruption. Latin Americans could finally restore a sense of normality to their lives.

Think back to Prohibition. As long as booze was illegal, there were the booze lords and the constant violent battle against them. As soon as booze was made legal, all the booze lords immediately went out of business. They couldn’t compete against private distributors of liquor and beer operating in a legal free market.

Moreover, by having drugs produced by reputable firms, drug addicts would no longer be dying from corrupted, black-market drugs. They also would be more likely to seek treatment, knowing that they could no longer be busted and sent to jail for ingesting drugs while getting treatment for their drug habit.

Most important, drug legalization would be a critically important step toward the achievement of a free society. How can people genuinely be considered free when governments wield the legal authority to punish them for engaging in purely self-destructive behavior? Freedom entails the right to engage in any conduct whatsoever, no matter how irresponsible, so long as the conduct is peaceful.

Latin America is clearly on the right track when it comes to the drug war. It should continue to reject entreaties, cajoling, and threats from U.S. officials who wish to continue this 40-year-old war notwithstanding its manifest failure and horrific consequences. But Latin America should also refuse to settle for half-way measures. The only solution to the drug war is to legalize drugs, all drugs.

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.


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