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Rafael Fernández de Castro Headshot

From Mexico City to Los Angeles: My Perspective on the Drug War

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Drug policy reform appears to be sweeping Latin America. The regional movement headed by Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina, Colombia's Juan Manuel Santos and most recently Uruguay's José Alberto Mujica has sprouted from an inability to quell the growing violence, corruption and economic instability that results from the illegal drug trade. So why has Mexico -- a country that has lost more than 60,000 people to the drug war -- lagged behind?

Although President Felipe Calderon has stated that Mexico must seek market solutions to the drug problem, he has refused to be associated with the liberalization movement for one main reason: Calderon considers himself to be the regional leader in this matter and to pursue legalization would mean to admit that his war strategy was never the most adequate approach. I used to be like Calderon, patriotic and hardheaded, but after leaving Mexico City to go to college in California I am no longer the latter.

Living in the U.S. has made me realize how far Mexicans are from winning the drug war. We can continue to fight the cartels but we will never be able to beat Uncle Sam's insatiable 23 million drug consumers. The government cannot simply outsmart an army of undergrads who at least once a week smoke a joint or snort a line of coke, maybe both. In the meantime, we are killing ourselves down south. Is holding on to a taboo worth this unbearable cost?

Mexico's drug consumption has risen significantly; the number of Mexicans who tried drugs rose 4.5 million from 2002 to 2008 according to a national survey. This statistic automatically invalidates one of Calderon's most publicized justifications: "para que la droga no llegue a tus hijos" -- so that drugs don't reach your children. Although the 2008 report stated that drug addiction in Mexico rose by 51%, legalization would do little keeping in mind that the biggest market remains under prohibition and is just north of the border. For example, the latest UNODC world drug report estimates that less than 2% of Mexico's population between ages 15-64 uses marijuana while in the U.S. it's above 8%.

If we are to win this war we must to get rid of hypocrisy and enhance bilateral coordination. The U.S. can play a significant role in ending Mexico's drug war, not through the Merida Initiative's $1.4 billion aid package or encouraging militarization, but simply by instituting better drug laws at home. Most importantly, the Obama administration needs to avoid future "Fast and Furious" fiascos, share responsibility and pursue one course of action. As last year's leaked U.S. embassy cables revealed, the U.S. government publicly praises Calderon for his valor and willingness to fight the cartels and privately bashes his strategy, the Mexican military and the rise in human rights abuses.

U.S. legalization and regulation is what the southern neighbor really needs, an end to the prohibitionist policies that the U.S. has mandated across Latin America since the Nixon era. America's war on drugs cost taxpayers $51 billion dollars annually, has failed to reduce demand -- the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimates that between 2007 and 2010 the number of marihuana users increased from 14.4 million to 17.4 million -- and has imprisoned entire generations of blacks and Latinos- all while padding the prison-industrial complex's wallet. As a report by The Drug Policy Alliance points out, by 2003 "African Americans were arrested for drug violations at a rate 238% higher than whites and African Americans and Latinos comprised 2/3 of people incarcerated for drug law violations." What about all the rich white kids I see every day in college getting high? Drug use doesn't discriminate -- but drug laws sure do. Moreover, prohibition has only driven up the market value and turned drug trafficking into one of today's most profitable businesses. A 2011 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that for the year 2009 the gross profit of cocaine sales alone was $84 billion. Not only is organized crime outgunning the Mexican and U.S. governments, it also has the power to easily outspend them.

On the other hand, President Felipe Calderon needs to celebrate his victories but also admit his mistakes and open up the debate. Calderon and the PRI's Enrique Peña Nieto, who will assume the Mexican presidency in December, can pressure the U.S. by supporting regional efforts to promote drug legalization and regulation and by fostering an honest discussion of drug policy, in which all options are on the table. We need to fight the drug cartels with all the power of the state but also with intelligence, by hitting their main source of income. And maybe, after witnessing a legalization domino effect across Latin America, the U.S. will reconsider its own drug policy and choose to lead by example.

Rafael Fernández de Castro is from Mexico City, an undergrad majoring in Communication at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and is currently interning at the Drug Policy Alliance.

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