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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I hope lawmakers listening to this story had the same response I did - Legalize Marijuana!! Legalization of marijuana would:
1) Decrease demand from Mexican drug cartels
2) Create jobs
3) Raise revenue
4) Be easier to regulate.
The story made clear that marijuana is the only drug that hasn't gone down in consumption. There are good reasons for that, and good reasons to let people legally grow, purchase, and consume this drug.
I hope future Marketplace stories explore the potential economic gains to be had from legalizing marijuana.

Another issue here is figuring out who profits from marijuana being illegal? Easiest answer first, the drug cartels. By starting this prohibition our govt provided a market to be exploited without regulations and taxation. Who else? How about Private prisons? In 2009 there were 858,408 marijuana arrests. Only 12% of those were trafficking/dealing related. The other 88%? Possession. These out numbered all of the violent arrests by well over 200,000. What about Pharmaceutical companies? Well they now own patents on multiple synthetic marijuana drugs. Yup, you cant grow the actual plant but you can take "Pot 2.0" without any legal recourse. So does this prohibition actually help the American populace? Do some research and you make a decision for yourself.

Why no mention of the part high prices play in fueling the drug trade. Of course decriminalization would result in lower prices, thus less profit for dealers, and quite possibly less incentive to sell the stuff. It is surprising that your business program has such a shallow focus on the economic aspects of the drug trade. Isn't it time to get the "bad guys" out of a business that millions of Americans regularly participate in? The problem isn't just that folks use these drugs. A much bigger problem is that users are treated as criminals, and in most cases these are people who are uninvolved in other criminal activity. For a business journalist the what and whys of the drug trade is a meaty subject that deserves much more attention.

I believe smoking pot to be the best way to reduce stress. I have stopped for about a month and with in that time my stress level sky rocketed. I am healthy, fit and very responsible person with a mortgage payment a kid in school, bills paid on time. I have had to into therapy to help with my stress, which helps but not like smoking pot. Alcohol works for a little while but then you have to deal with the after effects.
The sadness to my situation is in order for me to deal with stress in the most self sufficient, economical way, healthy way, is to do something illegal. It's a shame that the war on drugs has been pounded in our heads since birth by people who claim " don't tread on me."
We deal with alcohol with rules and laws so why can't we do the same with drugs. Funny that the UN also things that the war on drugs is not the answer.

The US is the second-hardest-working country in the world, and you're wondering why there's a drug problem? If someone takes a day off from work, their manager is instantly looking for their replacement, and by the time an employee returns from their day off, there's a stranger sitting at their desk, doing their work.

I did field-repair work for several years, and one thing I learned very quickly was to never call back a customer on a Thursday of Friday afternoon; they are so burned out and strung out from the workweek that they will scream at you over the phone (or sometimes in person) for the slightest provocation.

And people are wondering why there's a drug problem in the most competitive and cutthroat industrial nation in the world. Amazing.

One solution, if you feel that you are contributing to the Mexican drug wars (which is ridiculous because it is the man-made law in the US that is the culprits) is to stick to the primo, Grade A stuff. That will be grown indoors, likely in the US.

What did eliminating prohibition do to the illegal alcohol market? What would legalizing marijuana do to the Mexican drug "war?"

Marijuana sales could be regulated, taxed and international suppliers virtually eliminated. Imagine saving lives and making tax revenue.

My father used to say "History teaches us that history doesn't teach us anything." I like to be more hopeful and optimistic.

Happy to hear coverage of illegal drugs from and economic perspective. The high price and hence the profitability of these drugs is also part of the equation. Enforcement is key in keeping the prices high. The more successful law enforcement is the greater the price(to the extent that demand is static). Perhaps the "war on drugs" should be viewed as an elaborate and convoluted agricultural subsidy. A growing drug of abuse is prescription opiates. Many get these drugs from Florida's so called 'pill mills" This drug market is very different that the drugs smuggled in from Mexico.


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