Mexico has a point: Americans have contributed mightily to the creation of the violent drug cartels now wreaking havoc on the border. We are major consumers of their illegal products.
In addition, we supply many of the weapons they use against rivals, law enforcement officials and innocents caught in the crossfire. Federal agents estimate that 90 percent of the pistols and rifles confiscated from Mexican drug traffickers and traced led back to gun dealers in the U.S., according to The New York Times.
Before his meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderón last week, President Barack Obama made a number of moves designed to placate our southern neighbors, who are struggling with an out-and-out drug war. Obama appointed a "border czar" to crack down on the smuggling of guns and drugs; he imposed financial sanctions on three of the most notorious cartels; he threatened to prosecute any American who does business with drug kingpins.
Noticeably absent from Obama's list of corrective measures was any pledge to reinstate the ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004. Bullied by the gun lobby, Obama and fellow Democrats are afraid to press a commonsense measure that would take weapons of war off the streets here and out of the hands of drug thugs in Mexico.
Given that cowardice, it's probably futile to suggest that Obama do something visionary, if radical, about the market for illegal drugs in this country:
Walk away from the failed and costly "war on drugs"; significantly reduce the amount of money spent on enforcement against penny-ante dealers and users; abandon harsh laws that give stiff prison sentences to nonviolent drug offenders; spend the money instead on rehabilitation for addicts.
Some of that money could also be redirected to cracking down on the cartels, as Obama has proposed. They are vicious criminal enterprises that, left unchecked, can infiltrate the law enforcement and judicial establishments of entire countries. As Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., recently noted, "the Mexican drug cartels are capable of a very sophisticated level of quasi-military violence." The Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI should concentrate resources on those kingpins, not on street-level dealers or addicted users doing more harm to themselves than anyone else.
In the 40 years since President Richard Nixon first used the term "war on drugs," the U.S. has spent billions on punitive law enforcement efforts; harassed and intimidated law-abiding residents of poor urban neighborhoods; and locked up hundreds of thousands for non-violent drug offenses, resulting in the highest incarceration rate on the planet. Meanwhile, the use of illegal narcotics in this country has not changed substantially.
Oh, there's an ebb and flow, a change in fashions, an emergence of new trends. The crack epidemic, which largely affected black communities, is slowly fading, while whites in small towns and rural areas have become enmeshed in a devastating love affair with methamphetamine. But there is no evidence that Americans' desire to indulge in mind-altering substances has been dampened.
Instead, the government's insistence on outlawing narcotics has fed a thriving and violent criminal enterprise, much the way that prohibition of alcohol fueled violent gangs in the 1920s. Think about it: As long as alcohol is sold legally, there are no outsized fortunes to be made from selling it illegally, no need for thugs with weapons to handle its distribution or collect the profits. The U.S. finally came to its senses in 1933 and repealed prohibition after a 13-year struggle with the lawlessness it spawned.
For a host of political and cultural reasons, Americans aren't ready for the wholesale repeal of laws against illegal drugs. Nevertheless, most of us would admit that decades of draconian law enforcement haven't helped and have probably hurt, driving up the costs of incarceration and leaving countless nonviolent offenders with criminal records.
That leaves Attorney General Eric Holder with an opening to quietly redirect federal law enforcement to focus on the most violent drug offenders and the most profitable drug enterprises. No more drug busts that make the evening news but only reel in low-level dealers. If the feds were to lead the way, local police authorities might get the message and redirect their resources as well.
And we might finally have a policy that puts fewer people in prison while still keeping our streets safe.
Cynthia Tucker is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the opinion page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.