The Two Faces of U.S. Drug Policy

The Obama Administration is cheerleading Mexico’s drug war as it reins in our own

After 20 years of covering organized crime and drug trafficking in Mexico, investigative journalist Lydia Cacho knows their corrosive effects on her country as keenly as anyone. She was kidnapped and tortured in 2005, and numerous reporter friends of hers have been killed. She now spends a lot of time on reporting projects outside of Mexico—she is too recognizable to work safely at home.

It might be reasonable to expect, then, that Cacho would welcome any efforts to battle Mexico’s drug cartels. But after the Obama administration sent Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Mexico last month to offer American support, Cacho wasn’t optimistic. That the U.S. is sending military officials signals that drugs will not be treated as a social, health, or human rights problem, she says. Instead, the U.S. seems to be backing a hard-line drug war in which a rapid accumulation of bodies is a sign of success: After returning to Washington, Admiral Mullen said that President Felipe Calderon’s bravery in fighting drug traffickers is “one of the reasons the violence level is so high."

Ironically, in the United States, drugs are increasingly being dealt with as a social problem. “Obama’s government is sending the message of ‘health for Americans, war for Mexicans,’” Cacho says. “That is unacceptable.”

The tenor of American diplomacy in the weeks since Mullen’s visit suggests that Cacho’s read on administration policy was right. In the last few weeks, the U.S. has sped up the delivery of $1.4 billion of military and surveillance equipment, and pledged to buy Black Hawk helicopters for the Mexican military. It has become de facto U.S. policy to characterize Calderon’s domestic deployment of the army as “courageous,” a plaudit recently used by Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got in on the action, stopping by a military training facility in Mexico City. At the end of that visit, she “then, dressed in a coral pantsuit, …climbed into the back of a pickup and sped off to tour a Black Hawk helicopter hangar,” USA Today reported.

On the homefront, too, it’s been a busy time for American drug policy. But the tone here is rather different. The President’s new budget proposal would allocate some $64 million to the country’s drug courts, making it possible for more users to get treatment rather than incarceration. Attorney General Eric Holder has also committed the Justice Department to halting raids on state-approved medical marijuana dispensaries. And confirming just how far domestic drug policy has shifted from punishment and policing, the man the administration has picked as its new "drug czar" is Seattle Police Chief R. Gil Kerlikowske, who is famously not in favor of hard-line drug policies.

Kerlikowske’s stance is that fighting supply is ultimately ineffective, and that "our nation's drug problem is one of human suffering." Medical marijuana advocates in Washington State see his nomination as something of a coup. Joanna McKey, co-founder of Seattle’s Green Cross medical marijuana dispensary, worked with Kerlikowske’s office to amicably resolve neighborhood clinic complaints. When she heard of Kerlikowske’s federal appointment, her first thought was, “we are blessed,” she says. To Douglas Hiatt, a Seattle-area medical-marijuana lawyer, the selection of his chief for drug czar signals a new open-mindedness when it comes to domestic drug laws. “He’s a very pragmatic guy,” Hiatt says. “He’s not going to continue with policies that don’t work. He’s got enough intellectual integrity that he’s going to try to solve problems and not parrot useless nonsense.”

Given the softening domestic climate on marijuana, some Southwestern officials have wondered whether fighting the drug is even worth it. In December, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard suggested that marijuana’s illicit status is responsible for some of the cartel-related violence seeping into his state. His logic was simple: according to his office, 65 percent of the cartels’ revenue comes from smuggling marijuana, a business that’s only profitable because it’s illegal. Though Goddard, a Democrat, is careful to note that he doesn’t support legalization, he’s been calling loudly for a reexamination of our federal and state marijuana laws, especially given that marijuana looks like “health food” compared to products like meth, he says.

Goddard’s political enemies have seized on such comments as a sign that he’s soft on drugs, but he’s hardly in favor of calling off the drug war. So long as U.S. drug policy remains unchanged, he’s an aggressive advocate of attacking the narcotics trade in Mexico. “By supporting the Calderon administration in their fight with the cartels, we’re keeping it from becoming a fight on U.S. soil,” he explains.

It’s not hard to see why someone like Cacho would find that rationale unappealing. But so far, says Jorge Bravo, a UCLA professor specializing in Mexican politics, criticism of Calderon’s drug war seems to be confined to “journalists, policy experts, and other elites”—including him.

“If you go after Cartel X, you just make life easier for Cartel Y,” Bravo says. “But I don’t pretend that this view is held by the majority of Mexico.”

According to surveys done by Consulta Michofsky, one of Mexico’s leading polling firms, strong pluralities approve of Calderon’s handling of the drug war and the domestic deployment of the military. The president’s own approval remains at a steady 60 percent. And while his National Action Party (PAN) is trailing in advance of July’s congressional elections, its troubles are likely due to the economy. “It doesn’t appear that the Calderon administration is going to be punished electorally for the increase in violence,” Bravo says.

So even if the Obama administration isn’t keen on pursuing a war on drugs domestically, it may find that Mexico will remain an eager partner in fighting one abroad for some time. Which means we’ll probably see U.S. officials pledging ever more support in the Mexican war on drugs, even as they assert that some of our own drug laws just might need some softening.