Editorial: Legalizing pot won’t end War on Drugs


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There are many reasons to be excited about the inevitable end of the War on Drugs, specifically the incredibly wasteful practice of marijuana prohibition. The end of wasting billions of dollars upholding an unenforceable law, the discontinuation of a system that intensifies the worst racial injustices of the American legal system through the disproportionate sentencing rates of African Americans and Latinos compared with whites, and boatloads of revenue should be reaped from taxation of the newly legalized drug. In a political environment that’s up to its eyeballs in bad news, it’s incredibly uplifting to find a public-policy issue in which our political representatives seem to be heading toward a sane solution.

There is, however, such a thing as being too optimistic, and one of the more giddy claims around the demise of marijuana prohibition deserves some greater scrutiny: the theory that marijuana prohibition’s end will be followed by the collapse of the main supplier of illegal narcotics into the United States, Mexican drug cartels.

This isn’t an especially uncommon argument among champions of legalization. It’s a line that’s been embraced by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the former foreign minister of Mexico, Jorge Castaneda, and many others who see legalized weed as the only way to dismantle the dangerous narco-state that Mexico has become. 

There is significant evidence that ending the draconian restrictions of marijuana in the United States would be devastating to the cartels. Stanford Professor Keith Humphreys, a former adviser to the Office of National Drug Policy, says marijuana accounts for approximately 30 percent of the cartels’ total revenue (Sylvia Longmire, a former Air Force special agent and an author of numerous books on the drug war, estimates that it may be as high as 60 percent). Shutting down such a large portion of the cartels’ business model would clearly not be ideal from the standpoint of the cartels, which is why many cartel farmers, as documented by VICE News, in the Sinaloa region of Mexico (home to the country’s most dominant cartel) are none too pleased with the choice of Colorada and Washington (state) voters to legalize recreational marijuana. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization,” one was quoted as saying.

However, a detrimental effect on the cartels is not the same as a ruinous one. Marijuana may be the engine for the creation of the cartels, but it is not sole driver of its existence. For one thing, cocaine and heroin are incredibly profitable products for the cartels. Humphreys estimates that the two combine for about half of the cartels’ overall profits, and with a lack of a push for legalization of these substances, it’s hard to see why the cartels can’t transition their drug-trafficking efforts to exclusively heroin and cocaine.

Outside of drugs, Longmire has demonstrated, the cartels have gotten their fingers onto many different illicit industries, such as kidnapping, prostitution, stealing oil from Mexican companies and selling it to American suppliers, extortion (similar to the Mafia’s “protection racket”), and black-market goods. These non-drug operations account for a chunk of the cartels’ overall revenue, and they are unlikely to be affected by legalizing pot north of the border.

Cartels are massive, and like any other massive institution, Mexico’s will find a way to survive. The war on pot may have created the cartels, but unfortunately, it won’t dismantle them. Weakening the cartels is one of many reasons to liberalize marijuana, but we shouldn’t pretend they will disappear the moment pot becomes available at the local smoke shop.

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