Some Questions for the War on Drugs Hawks

Would you rather accept legalization or give billions to paramilitary cartels?

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Indulge me in a quick game of Would You Rather. Here are your choices: Would you rather legalize and regulate most drugs in the United States... or give $39 billion per year to the Sinaloa drug cartel to spend on whatever it wants? It's a serious question. For those who aren't familiar with that criminal organization, it may help to know that earlier this year, its bosses in Mexico were responsible for decapitating 15 people and leaving their bodies on the streets of Acapulco.

So what's it going to be? It's an easy question for those of us who want to legalize most drugs anyway. What I'd like to know is which choice those of you opposed to legalization would make.

Oh, you don't answer hypothetical questions? Okay. What if I told you that "earlier this month, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller told Congress that upwards of $39 billion a year in drug profits from north of the border is making it back to Mexico and the cartels." That's a quotation from an LA Times article titled, "Mexican Cartels Setting Up Shop Across US." Yes, the Sinaloa cartel, the most powerful in Mexico -- a country so corrupt that police officers are being arrested for helping drug cartels hide mass graves -- has outposts in South Carolina, Seattle, Anchorage, and Minneapolis.

Where else? We can't really know.

When the FBI started looking into the South Carolina drug trade, agents never imagined the investigation would lead them to a Mexican cartel. In all, the effort here has led to charges against 116 people in eight separate indictments, 33 firearms seized, four vehicles impounded, 27 wiretaps approved, and $600,000 in cash and well over $1 million in drugs confiscated. So far, 111 of the defendants have been convicted, while one suspect awaits trail and four fugitives are on the loose.

No one believes Columbia has become drug free, but the city is the first in the nation to have successfully disrupted a cartel that was so deeply ingrained in a U.S. community. The success is being hailed by law enforcement officials as a major victory. "We've been standing at a dam and putting our fingers in the holes," said lead prosecutor Asst. U.S. Atty. Stacey D. Haynes.  

It isn't comforting when the guy giving the pep talk uses that metaphor to sum up what we're up against.

Let's look at some numbers. 2,977 people were murdered on September 11, 2001. How many folks died from the Mexican Drug War in 2010?

 More than 12,000.

That suggests another question. Would you rather legalize most drugs... or see the equivalent carnage of four 9/11s happen every year from fighting the black market? That isn't a hypothetical. It's a real choice. If you'd rather have a lot of dead Mexicans than risk an uptick in US addiction rates -- isn't that basically the calculation some people are making? -- then I've got another question. Would you rather legalize drugs... or risk that the sort of violence seen in Mexico will spread into the United States, corrupting our police departments, and ravaging our cities? Perhaps that won't ever happen. But if you're confident that it won't happen I would like to know why.

These are the actual choices we face in the War on Drugs. It is seldom put so starkly. But perhaps if the rhetoric we used better reflected the choices we actually face, we'd stop pursuing such an idiotic, immoral course.

Image credit: Reuters  

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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