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February 06, 2014 12:05 PM U.S. Marijuana Legalization and the Future of Mexico

By Keith Humphreys

Alejandro Hope runs one of the precious few blogs that regularly provides data-based drug policy analysis, and his work is always worth reading. The latest example is his Bloomberg View essay Legal U.S. Pot Won’t Bring Peace to Mexico.

Alejandro estimates that national U.S. marijuana legalization would deprive the Mexican drug trafficking organizations of 1.5 to 2 billion dollars in revenue, but he is not confident that this would result in any reduction in violence or crime more generally. He sees the basic drivers of lawlessness in Mexico as more fundamental:

In the final analysis, Mexico doesn’t have a drug problem, much less a marijuana problem: It has a state capacity problem. That is, its institutions are too weak to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens. Even if drug trafficking might very well decline in the future, in the absence of stronger institutions, something equally nefarious will replace it.

I broadly agree with Alejandro’s analysis, and would add one other point: recent historical experience also does not support the idea that reduced drug trafficking revenues will pacify the Mexican cartels. U.S. cocaine consumption has fallen dramatically since 2006 and cocaine is a far more lucrative drug for the Mexican cartels than is marijuana. Yet the period in which the U.S. cocaine consumption decline was hitting the cartels in the pocketbook coincided with the great surge of cartel-related violence in Mexico.

These realities force honest analysts to return to the basic principle that there is no inherent connection between illegal markets and violence. Whether those who engage in transactional crimes are also violent and/or directly challenge the state varies based on the context, time and place. Irrespective of what happens regarding marijuana markets, the state capacity question that Alejandro raises will be central to the future security of the Mexican people.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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