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Are U.S. drug users to blame for Mexican border violence?

A young man prepares to smoke marijuana during a demonstration for the legalization of cannabis.

Kai Ryssdal: Forty years ago this Friday, the phrase "War on Drugs" first passed presidential lips. Since the days of Richard Nixon, the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars trying to control the use of illegal drugs and keep them out of the country. It's been mostly a losing battle. Twenty-two million of us use illegal drugs every year. That demand gets a lot of blame for the never-ending supply that comes across the Mexican border.

From Fronteras, a regional reporting project in the Southwest, Peter O'Dowd has the final installment in our series, "The Drug War at Home."


Izzy Cano: All right, just go ahead and sign here, sir. And your initials on the side of the bottle.

Peter O'Dowd: At this drug screening center in Phoenix, a line of men goes one-by-one into the bathroom to pee into a plastic bottle. This center works with Arizona's criminal justice system to keep tabs on probation and parole violations. The lab tests several million samples a year. In many ways, the people here are America's typical users. Most are men. Marijuana is the drug of choice.

Barbara Zugor: This is the gut of life, isn't it?

Executive Director Barbara Zugor has worked here since 1977. Sometimes she's philosophical about her job. Why in 2009, for instance, did almost 17 million Americans smoke pot habitually? Why did a million and a half use cocaine? A survey of 17 countries by the World Health Origination shows Americans use these drugs more often than any other country in the study. But why?

Zugor: Now, that's the $64 billion question. And we're all trying to figure out why is that? And until we find that out, there will probably be drugs and drug abuse in this country.

Drug dealer: There's a ripple effect to everything.

Even drug dealers think about this.

Drug dealer: Everyone who smokes weed is like a crack addict. That's their fix. That's their drug. And they're going to call your phone.

I can't tell you his name -- for obvious reasons. But the demand for his product was constant. Before getting busted in Phoenix, he bought several pounds of Mexican pot at time. The weak stuff, Bobby Brown it's called. He sold it for 60 bucks an ounce, and made about $2,000 a week. He sold to students, to firemen, even to military police.

Drug dealer: I think that Mexicans are getting a bad rap. And while a lot of the stuff is coming across the border, it's our demand that's pushing it here. It's like stop the demand, you'll stop the flow.

Now, this is remarkable. The U.S. government echoes the sentiment of a drug dealer.

Gil Kerlikowske: Mexico wouldn't have quite the level of problems -- and actually several other countries wouldn't either -- if we could reduce our own demand.


A snapshot of drug use in the U.S. (Courtesy U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

Gil Kerlikowske is the U.S. drug czar. He says the demand for cocaine has fallen steadily over the last few decades, but the government isn't sure why. It could be a combination of prevention efforts like the "Just Say No" campaign from the 1980s and 90s. Or it could be the billions of dollars invested in law enforcement on both sides of the border. For decades, there have been critics who say this so-called "War on Drugs" is entirely the wrong approach. And Kerlikowske agrees on one point: the phrase should be thrown out the window.

Kerlikowske: We should stop calling it a "War on Drugs." People are frustrated. They don't see a real end result or a win. They know that somebody, their son or daughter in high school, can still get drugs. And it's just the wrong approach.

Instead, Kerlikowske says this drug problem must also be treated as a human health issue. It won't be easy. Economists say very little can be done in the short term to stop our hunger for drugs like marijuana. Its use has remained steady for a decade.

Drug user: Whenever I hear about the violence, I cringe.

This is a Phoenix drug user, who spends a lot time thinking about this very debate. She started smoking marijuana after a cancer diagnosis. Despite Arizona's new medical marijuana law, she doesn't have permission to smoke. She buys it illegally.

Drug user: One of the guilt parts that I have over using the marijuana is what's going on in Mexico. I don't want to feel that what I'm having to do for my health is hurting somebody else.

And yet, the money she spends on marijuana is more than likely fueling the Mexican drug cartels. All those little drug sales, all over America, add up to as much as $39 billion each year that heads south across the border.

In Phoenix, I'm Peter O'Dowd for Marketplace.

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An interesting parallel to the story would be the booming U.S. home-grown marijuana market, or grow-ops that are springing up around the nation. Higher quality product, higher prices, and (usually) locally grown. Of course, where there's cash there's violence.?.

Before blaming the US for Mexico's drug-trafficking problems, I suggest Americans familiarize themselves with the history of the Opium Wars, starting with "Commissioner Lin Ze-xu's Letter to Queen Victoria" (http://dev.prenhall.com/divisions/hss/app/BW_TEST/Western_History/docume...). The British wanted Chinese goods, but had nothing the Chinese wanted, so the British farmed opium poppies in India to created a market for opium in China by addicting millions of Chinese people to it. I've never once seen a historian blame Chinese addicts, rather than British traffickers, for the conflict that followed. So why are we blaming US addicts for the violence unleashed by Mexican traffickers? Was there no violence in Mexico before trafficking? Does anyone really believe these traffickers will meekly go away if the US legalizes drugs?

Very easy fix. Just stop it.
Stop smoking it. Cold turkey.
Oh wait. They are addicted. Addicts. Haha.
Stop pretending it's not an addiction.
Have a nice day.

This story was an interesting listen yesterday afternoon. Lots of comments on legalization and the $$ going to Mexico which is good food for thought. From an economic standpoint, it would be informative to get a comparison between marijuana and alcohol use. What are the costs to society - loss of productivity, health, property loss/damage from DUI, domestic violence, etc? Also, it would have been nice to see how "habitual use" is established, daily, weekly... As a federal worker, Reagan made it a law (Drug Free Workplace Act of 1988) prohibiting illegal drug use by feds, but looking at our agency's local statistics on alcohol use, more than 33% of personnel are classified as abusing alcohol. Seems to me that, legal or illegal, abuse is the most important component here.

Re: the fall in cocaine use - no one mentioned the aging population. Cocaine is basically a young persons' drug. Too hard on body parts for older folks.

How can I find out the title of the song that was used to close this segment? It was only played for about 15 seconds at the end.

It's about time we talked sensibly about the economics of the so-called war on drugs. I have long believed that marijuana (and even some of the "harder" drugs) should be legalized. There is no rhyme or reason to the laws against drugs when alcohol use is permitted. The "war on drugs" has been a total failure for years, and many allude to it as a mere means to the end of keeping fear-mongering politicians in power. Were these drugs made legal, supplies would increase and prices would come down (thus destroying much of the profit motive that keeps the cartels alive and killing). Quality standards could be set and enforced, taxation on the products could fund the enforcement of those standards. Users would no longer clog the legal system, jails and prisons to the extent that they do now. Imagine the savings (as Tim Bedore has said). Prevention of using while driving or working would require fine-tuning of current drug detection techniques, but I'm sure it could be done. They've figured it out with alcohol, after all. It is myopic, foolish, and even criminal of us to continue on our current path.

Legalize marijuana? What an idiotic idea! Let's have some strength of soul within these Americans.

A better question than "Are US drug users to blame for Mexican border violence?" is "Are the failed politics of drug Prohibition to blame for Mexican border violence?"

The Nixon Administration looked toward the Canadian study on the use of marijuana back in the late 60s (early 70s?) to validate their War on Drugs until the conclusion of the study pointed to at least some sort of decriminalization. They then promptly ignored it. The same has occurred recently with a large study to do the very same thing - and again the powers that be discount the very idea of taking a sane and measured approach to this issue.

The initial law in 1937 criminalizing marijuana was based on lies and deception. Once passed, however, our government does what all governments do - NEVER admit that they erred, regardless of the financial and human cost of their misguided legislation. So we continue with this wasteful and (IMO) unconstitutional policy.

Bill Clinton said at one point that decriminalization should probably happen - but of course, he waited until he was out of office.

Jimmy Carter stated that no penalties of drug laws should do more harm that the drug itself. Yet we continue with the madness.

And the violence in Mexico is a direct result of the Prohibition politics that continue north of the Rio Grande.

When will our politicians become smart & effective rather than "tough" and stupid?

I feel you really missed the mark today with your story on the responsibility that drug users carry. All of these issues could be resolved by doing one thing, legalization of Marijuana. Not just for medical usage, but for recreational use as well. Many of today's issues which lead to violence and corruption through our society could be eliminated. Its difficult to understand why public view continues to not change and more effort is not applied for this initiative. Its more of the lack of effort of congress to push this measure. Common replies that are heard from our leaders could be "Its really low on the list" or "The economy is far more important right now." If there is such a financial downturn and deep cuts are occurring all across the country, why wouldn't we turn every stone we could to improve our economic conditions? It could be treated much in the way alcohol is treated right now. Numerous studies have determined that marijuana continues to be safe for medicinal usage. And we sell cigarettes still right? So why should we not have the right for a joint? The War on Drugs continues to fail at providing a purpose other then use unnecessary taxes dollars, only further adding to the problem.

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