Surgical Strikes in the Drug Wars

Smarter Policies for Both Sides of the Border

Blocks of cocaine that were confiscated by the Peruvian police are seen at a stone coal storage facility in Trujillo, August 26, 2014. Peruvian Presidential Palace Handout / Reuters

More than a thousand people die each month in drug-dealing violence in Mexico, and the toll has been rising. In some parts of the country, the police find themselves outgunned by drug traffickers and must rely on the armed forces. Meanwhile, the United States suffers from the widespread abuse of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and cannabis; violence and disorder surrounding retail drug markets; property theft and violent crime committed by drug abusers; and mass incarceration, including half a million people behind bars for drug offenses and at least as many for crimes committed for money to buy drugs.

Current policies, clearly, have unsatisfactory results. But what is to replace them? Neither of the standard alternatives -- a more vigorous pursuit of current antidrug efforts or a system of legal availability for currently proscribed drugs -- offers much hope. Instead, it is time for Mexico and the United States to consider a set of less conventional approaches.

Most of the illicit drugs consumed in the United States come through or from Mexico, and virtually all the revenue of Mexican drug-trafficking organizations comes from sales to the United States. Thinking of this as a single shared drug problem suggests a shared responsibility for controlling that problem. In the conventional telling, Mexico's role is to limit illicit exports, while the United States should act to shrink demand and domestic production, relying on the standard drug-control triad of enforcement, prevention, and treatment.

The conventional alternative to this conventional wisdom holds that the problem is not drugs but drug laws, and that the solution is therefore legal availability. Since prohibition creates illicit markets, the argument goes, only some form of regulated availability can eliminate the illicit market and the resulting problems. Even under legal availability, say the anti-prohibitionists, prevention and treatment efforts can limit the extent of drug abuse and the damage it causes. Last June's report of the self-appointed Global Commission on Drug Policy -- whose signatories included former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Switzerland,

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