Legalization a controversial weapon in Mexico's drug war
WASHINGTON, Dec 28, 2011 (Menafn - dpa - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --As Mexico's drug cartels wage a bloody war for dominance of the multi-billion dollar narcotics business, a growing chorus of leaders is calling for a radical solution: legalize the market.
In June, a high-powered conference, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, called for governments to look into "legal regulation" of illicit drugs, a move they said could weaken cartels.
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, and former presidents of Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil were among those calling for legal, government-regulated drugs sales "to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and safety of citizens." Former US president Jimmy Carter applauded their findings, in an op-ed in the New York Times.
Advocates argue that a legal drugs market would destroy drug cartels by eliminating a "black market premium" -- the price hike on illegal goods -- which accounts for up to 90 percent of cartel profits, according to the libertarian Cato Institution think tank.
That's what happened in the US in 1933, when the repeal of Prohibition decimated crime gangs who had made millions trafficking in illegal alcohol.
Although two former Mexican presidents, Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo, support legalization, Mexico's current leader, Felipe Calderon, has in the past rejected calls for reforms. But as Mexico reels from more than 45,000 deaths in five years, in a war driven by US drug use, he may be changing his tune.
In September, he surprised Mexicans by suggesting at the UN that if drug-consuming nations won't reduce demand, they're "morally obliged" to look at "all possible options."
"They're obligated to look at other options, including market alternatives, to keep drug trafficking from being the source of violence and death," he said, in a speech before the General Assembly.
But market alternatives can only be implemented in the user market -- in this case, the US. And so far, the chance that the US might consider legalization is remote.
While US president Barack Obama has called drug legalization "an entirely legitimate topic for debate" -- the farthest any sitting US president has gone -- his position is clear: "I am not in favour of legalization."
The US has the highest rate of illicit drug use in the world, 8.7 per cent of the population in 2009, according to the Center for Disease Control. A Gallup poll published in October showed half of Americans in favor of marijuana legalization.
Sixteen US states and Washington, DC allow marijuana use as a medical treatment, in violation of federal drug law. California's Proposition 19, which would have made the state the first place in the world to completely legalize marijuana, failed by only 6 per cent in a referendum last year.
But politically, the topic remains taboo.
"Most politicians think that it's terribly unpopular and you get into all sorts of trouble with very conservative and very strident groups that don't like this," former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda, a proponent of legalization, told dpa.
US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, a legalization opponent, cites public health risks at home, in a country already facing a drug use crisis.
"We don't see any evidence that legalizing drugs and making them more widely available would be a help to anyone in this country," he said, speaking about the US, in an interview this year with a Texas newspaper.
And some critics argue that legalization would come too late to stop the killing in Mexico and other cartel-plagued countries. Law enforcement pressure on drug routes has led crime gangs to diversify into extortion, human smuggling, and other illicit markets, reducing their own dependence on drugs.
Citing a study on the proposed California law, Kerlikowske said "legalizing drugs would not reduce the violence in Mexico, but the chaos could actually increase the violence."
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime's regional chief for Mexico, Antonio Mazzitelli, has called legalization a "fake solution" it's "naive" to think would eliminate cartels.
While drug production and trafficking remain illegal worldwide, decriminalization of drug use is gaining momentum. A slew of countries, starting with Portugal in 2001, have enacted new rules designed to free law enforcement from the burden of arresting small offenders, and to remove the fear of prosecution that can keep drug users from seeking help.
Mexico's legislature voted in 2009 to allow possession of small amounts of marijuana, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, although production, sale and trafficking are still against the law. So far, fears of a spike in use and addiction have not materialized.
But no country has yet gone all the way. And the political realities of the polarized, conservative US mean it's unlikely to be the first.
That has led some advocates to suggest Mexico should go it alone. At the very least, they say, allowing drug production and sale in Mexico would relieve law enforcement of the obligation to fight cartels.
According to Castaneda, that would make stopping the flow of drugs -- and the violence that goes with it -- the US's problem.
"You don't have to do it," he said. "You tell the Americans, you guys do it, if you're so excited about this. But we don't have to do it anymore because it's not the law in Mexico."
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