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November 13, 2012 9:38 AM State-level Cannabis Legalization and U.S.-Mexican Relations

By Mark Kleiman

Studying drug policy is no fun if you like things to make sense. But it’s a good way to cultivate an appreciation of the absurd.

The United States consumes large amounts of cocaine, cannabis, heroin, and methamphetamine, most of which enters the country from the south. Mexican drug trafficking organizations are able to make money exporting drugs into that rich market; after U.S. enforcement pressure shut down the Caribbean route, drugs started to flow overland through Mexico.

The official policy of the United States government is to treat the effect as the cause, and demand that the Mexican government force its residents to stop selling what our residents are buying. That would be extremely hard for Mexico to do even if its law enforcement and judicial capacities were much greater than in fact they are. In the meantime, dealing-related violence takes about a thousand Mexican lives per month.

Mexicans who pay attention to all this are justifiably annoyed that the U.S., having created a massive problem for Mexico, keeps demanding that Mexico “do something about it,” especially since most of what we urge them to do – increase enforcement pressure on drug dealers – is more apt to exacerbate the violence than to reduce it.

The U.S. is also a big fan of the futile activity of crop eradication, especially the aerial spraying of pesticides on drug crops: except in the U.S. where environmental concerns preclude spraying, and we concentrate on the even more futile activity of cutting down the crops by hand. Mexico has long insisted that the U.S. increase its own domestic crop-eradication effort.

Of course this demand makes no practical sense whatever; whatever drugs are produced in the U.S. will displace Mexican imports, thus reducing the stress on Mexican government and society. In effect the Mexicans are saying, “We won’t do the ridiculous thing you ask of us unless you do it, too.”

The latest iteration of this Policy Theater of the Absurd involves the decisions of voters in Colorado and Washington to legalize cannabis production for non-medical use. As a practical matter, that can only benefit Mexico by reducing U.S. demand for Mexican weed. (That would be true, to a significant extent, only if drugs produced licitly in Washington and Colorado were “exported” illicitly to the rest of the country; whether state controls and federal enforcement could prevent that remains to be seen.) But as a symbolic matter, Mexicans whose countrymen are dying in the service of the U.S.-promoted drug war regard this – or pretend to regard it – as an outrage.

Felipe Calderon, the outgoing President, whose crackdown policy failed to stem the violence and may well have made it worse, has joined the chorus calling for rethinking the international drug-control regime. A little re-thinking – a little thinking, for that matter – wouldn’t come amiss. But the notion that the U.S. somehow owes it to Mexico not to let Colorado and Washington experiment with cannabis legalization is not really a thoughtful notion.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the University of California Los Angeles.