America's drug habit is killing its neighbor to the south, writes columnist Neal Peirce. If the United States were to decriminalize drugs, prices would plummet. This means that the massive profits the Mexican druglords reap would literally evaporate.

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Profoundly immoral — and fiscal folly, to boot.

That’s how the United States’ continuing “war on drugs” and its horrendous impact on our neighbor Mexico deserve to be seen.


First, it’s our appetite for official forbidden drugs — marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine — that’s driving the chaos on our southern border and deep into Mexico. President Felipe Calderón expected — but has clearly failed — to crack the vicious drug rings through police and military power. But he’s dead right on one score:

“The origin of our violence problem begins with the fact that Mexico is located next to the country that has the highest levels of drug consumption in the world. It is as if our neighbor were the biggest drug addict in the world.”

The conclusion is simple: If the United States were to decriminalize drugs, end the criminal prohibition on growing or selling them, prices would plummet. This means that the massive profits the Mexican druglords reap — their “take” on an estimated $15 billion a year cross-border trade — would evaporate.

And that, in turn, would put an end to most of the barbaric drug-driven crimes — shootings, kidnappings, beheadings — that are currently being committed by the Mexican gangs as they struggle with each other for bigger slices of the market.

More than 23,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since December 2006, according to a still-confidential but leaked Mexican government report. At the scale of deaths reported since January, the total could top 13,000 just this year. Late in June the remains of 64 people, some decapitated, were discovered in a 50-story former mining pit near the tourist town of Taxco. From the wounds, it appeared many were alive when they were thrown down the shaft.

So how are we supposedly moral, righteous Americans reacting? Mostly with indifference, as if it’s “someone else’s” problem. Even the supposedly progressive Obama administration, while saying it wants a shift from interdiction to prevention and treatment of drug abuse, won’t make the connection between our drug-prohibition laws and the mass killings in Mexico. Rather, it’s funneling more cash to the Mexican police and armed forces, money to support a bloody, unwinnable war.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, interviewed by The Associated Press on a trip to Mexico City, was asked why the U.S. pursues its clearly failed, decades-long war on drugs. Her reply:

“This is something that is worth fighting for because drug addiction is about fighting for somebody’s life, a young child’s life, a teenager’s life, their ability to be a successful and productive adult.”

But does U.S. drug prohibition accomplish this when our teenagers report it’s easier to get a marijuana joint (because it’s unlicensed) than a six-pack of beer (its sale to minors government-enforced)?

Let’s assume drugs were decriminalized in the United States. And let’s acknowledge some added addiction occurred (even though the predicted rise in use is not reported in countries such as Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland where decriminalization has been introduced).

Even if more Americans would have to battle with addictions, we need to ask: Are American lives so precious, so superior, that Mexicans can or should be obliged to suffer tens of thousands of deaths because we’re too timid to lift our legal prohibition on drugs? Is this kind of behavior, belief in our moral immunity, what our chest-thumping Fourth of July celebrations are all about?

And then there’s the fiscal folly point. For Mexicans, the continued drug horrors darken any prospects for an economically successful nation — one that’s an effective trading partner with the United States, and able to provide strong incomes for its families so that fewer feel compelled to emigrate north across the border.

And for the U.S. economy there are big stakes, too. We could save tens of billions of dollars — at a time when the federal and practically all state and local budgets have moved into deep deficit territory — by moving rapidly to terminate our war on drugs.

There’s a strong parallel to the Great Depression. The repeal of the Prohibition Act, which outlawed liquor from 1920 to 1933, not only quashed the Al Capone-style crime rings but created tens of thousands of new legal jobs.

A similar move today would also stop the epidemic of drug arrests that have driven our prison populations — and costs to taxpayers — to world-record levels.

Morals and fiscal common sense both dictate that we end our drug prohibition. And not some decades from now, but quickly.

Neal Peirce’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. E-mail