Friday, January 28, 2011

The Drug Czar on Legalization

TT: You said in El Paso recently that decriminalization, or legalization of some illegal drugs is not an option, that is off the table. Why?

Kerlikowske: Well, one the administration’s stance is opposing legalization. When the president was a candidate, he opposed legalization. We don’t see any evidence that legalizing drugs and making them more widely available would be a help to anyone in this country. The second part is that, just from a common-sense standpoint, our No. 1 growing drug problem in the country, including fatalities, is prescription drugs. Well, prescription drugs are highly regulated, highly taxed, highly controlled, and yet we are completely incapable of keeping them out of the hands of kids, out of the hands of people abusing drugs and the evidence is very clear when it comes to fatalities and when it comes to emergency department visits.

TT: A lot of people here in Texas say the United States is responsible for the bloodshed in Mexico. Can you be a little bit more specific on why legalization would not quell the violence in Mexico?

Kerlikowske: I think the RAND Corporation study not only says that legalizing drugs would not reduce the violence in Mexico but the chaos could actually increase the violence in Mexico. The other part is that very rarely do I ever here any one in my seven trips to the border or my four trips to Mexico do I ever hear anyone blaming the United States. It used to be a very common term “Your drug consuming habits are fueling our violence.” I don’t hear that anymore. In fact the Mexican Ambassador here, Arturo Sarukhán, will tell you not to think of Mexico as just a drug-transit or a drug-producing country; it is also a country that is consuming drugs. We are all in this together, we all have our drug addiction problems and we all have our drug smuggling problems.
Nothing too surprising from a federal anti-drug official; advocating for decriminalization would be advocating for the end of his job, something few people are prepared to do. In any event, there are some flaws in his reasoning. He says that Mexico no longer blames the US, which doesn't square with Mexican officials' public statements in the least. It may be more muted than before in official circles, but the idea that American consumption is a major driver of Mexican insecurity is as prevalent as ever. To wit, here's Calderón in October:
I don't blame [the Americans] for everything, but of course they have a significant responsibility in this, because they represent the market for the drug smugglers and criminals.
Also, the Rand Corporation study had to do with the California referendum, not the nationwide legalization, so that comment is a bit misleading. Lastly, the bit about prescription drugs confuses the argument for legalization. It won't mean the end of heroin overdoses, of course; but, just as Eli Lilly and Merck don't hang decapitated bodies from bridges, the hope is that merchants of today's illegal drugs would modify their behavior if their merchandise was legalized.

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