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Legalizing Pot: Will It End the Mexican Drug Cartels?

• April 06, 2011 • 4:00 AM

If pot were legal — not decriminalized, but legal — it likely would knock a few props from beneath rampaging Mexican drugs cartels, argues Michael Scott Moore.

Willie Nelson’s Texas prosecutor — a 78-year-old fan, who plans to let the country singer off on a marijuana charge as long as he performs a song in court (and pays a fine) — wants to decriminalize pot.

Hudspeth County Attorney C.R. “Kit” Bramblett favors a bill before the Texas Legislature that would end jail sentences for minor marijuana possession. “That makes sense to me,” he told the Raw Story website last week.

Bramblett is otherwise a fairly conservative guy who wouldn’t want to legalize heroin or cocaine. But his experience as a prosecutor has convinced him not to seek jail time on small possessions charges, and the very fact that the Texas Legislature is considering a bill to decriminalize pot suggests a way forward in the failed American war on drugs.

“I may not like it,” Hudspeth told Raw Story, “but can’t no one can stop people from smoking it no matter how hard you try. Besides, people on that dang weed aren’t as senseless as on whiskey, I can tell you that much.”

Decriminalization has worked in Portugal. Treating addiction as a health problem has kept usage statistics low — a new generation of kids, in other words, is not getting hooked — and it’s prevented Lisbon from becoming a seedy drug-tourist paradise.

But a more pressing question for Americans is which policies can end the Mexican drug war. The tide of violence caused by Mexican drug cartels battling to serve the American drug market has been lurid and lethal. And a key argument during last year’s campaign season, which included hot debate over a ballot initiative (Proposition 19) to legalize pot in California, was that legalization could undercut the Mexican cartels.

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European Dispatch

EUROPEAN DISPATCH
Michael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.

[/class] Could it really? Legalization isn’t decriminalization. Demoting a minor pot infraction to the level of a parking ticket — the sort of thing Hudspeth supports — is easy compared to sanctioning the sale of joints in a liquor store. Legalization would mean taxing marijuana and passing laws on its cultivation, packaging and advertisement.

The U.S. is a long way from taking that step. It’s also hard to imagine the Mexican cartels would vanish if it did. For two reasons: Illegal cartels do business in lots of illegal substances; and who else would supply a suddenly legal U.S. market?

On close examination, though, those reasons wobble. Plenty of American growers would be happy to step up production, and Big Tobacco would be anxious to compete and take over distribution. More importantly, weed may account for a majority of the Mexican cartels’ business. The figure of 60 percent was floated in the late ’90s by the Office of National Drug and Control Policy, though the same office walked it back when it became a stoners’ rallying cry during the California campaign last fall.

The marijuana market is large compared to the cartels’ other drug rackets — heroin, meth and cocaine. The RAND Corporation last fall released a study with a somewhat buried conclusion that leaned away from its usual pro-drug-war tendencies: “We believe that legalizing marijuana in California would effectively eliminate Mexican DTOs’ [drug-trafficking organizations] revenues from supplying Mexican-grown marijuana to the California market.”

Legalizing pot would probably not put the Mexican cartels straight out of business, but it would weaken them by lowering the American street price of weed. A background squabble over potentially falling prices may have helped sink Proposition 19.

The most logical and consistent way for a government to handle addictive drugs, from cigarettes to heroin, is probably to legalize them all and package them in the same dull plain wrapper with strict laws against ads or clever sales strategies. The idea isn’t mine — the late Stephen Jay Gould suggested something along the same lines in a 1990 essay in Harper‘s. Gould, by the way, smoked marijuana medicinally while successfully battling mesothelioma.

Short of such a rational approach, it would make sense to legalize a relatively harmless drug and potentially massive practical industry like Cannabis sativa (marijuana plus hemp), but decriminalize the harder stuff. Opening clinical, European-style distribution centers for difficult drugs like heroin would not only mop up some local street crime but also shave another end off the cartels’ illicit profits.

Short of that, more American states could just decriminalize pot. At the very least we could save money on silly incarcerations. I doubt I’m the only person who would cheer if Willie Nelson dodges jail with a song.

 

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Michael Scott Moore
Michael Scott Moore was a 2006-2007 Fulbright fellow for journalism in Germany, and The Economist named his surf travelogue, "Sweetness and Blood," a book of the year in 2010. His first novel, "Too Much of Nothing," was published by Carroll & Graf in 2003, and he’s written about politics and travel for The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and Spiegel Online in Berlin, where he serves as editor-at-large.

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