New Campaign Should Blame Prohibition, Not Pot Smokers for Violence in Mexico

05/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Tony Newman Director of Media Relations, Drug Policy Alliance

"Just Say No" advocates have hatched a campaign scheme to blame people who smoke marijuana for the horrifying violence in Mexico. An article in the Wall Street Journal reported that antidrug groups plan to use this message when talking to high-school students and plan to ask the Partnership for Drug Free America ("this is your brain on drugs") and the Obama Administration to make this argument.

Proponents of the campaign hope young people will stop smoking marijuana if they associate the activity with the murder of people in Mexico. This theme is similar to one that former drug czar John Walters used after 9/11. Walters ran TV spots during the Super Bowl and print ads in hundreds of newspapers across the country attempting to link drug use with international terrorism. These ads were roundly criticized across the political spectrum. They were eventually cancelled as a result.

This latest campaign, like the "drug use supports terrorism" deception, is destined to backfire. It will surely be ridiculed and will further discredit the "Drug Free America" crew's credibility with the young people they proclaim to care so much about. The research backs my hypothesis. In 2006, a federally funded study conducted by the research firm Westat and the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication found that antidrug ads linking drug use to terrorism by the ONDCP had no effect on the kids who'd seen them, and in some cases actually made them more interested in marijuana.

There are a few problems with these campaigns: they are inaccurate in some cases and downright dishonest in others. It is disingenuous to connect the average American's marijuana consumption to the horrific violence that is resulting from Mexico's drug war. The average pot smoker's growing and purchasing of marijuana has no relationship to the violence along the border that is the result of large-scale drug trafficking.

For the people who do smoke marijuana that comes from Mexico, it's not too hard to figure out that it's not the marijuana plant or use of it that causes the violence. The violence is a byproduct of drug prohibition that makes the plant as valuable as gold and creates a profit motive that people are willing to kill for.

The drug-free society crowd had their counterparts during alcohol prohibition, who similarly blamed the beer drinker for Al Capone and the violence. People continued to drink during alcohol prohibition, just like people use drugs during drug prohibition. When alcohol was illegal in this country organized crime ruled the streets and violent turf wars resulted in shoot-outs in the streets. Sound familiar? Today no one dies over the sale of Budweiser. People eventually figured out that alcohol prohibition did not prevent people from drinking. But it did lead to out of control violence and a black market that benefited bootleggers who controlled the trade. Today drug prohibition is no different. Tens of millions of people still use marijuana and other drugs. But instead of regulation and control we have more than 7,500 deaths in Mexico over the last year and a half from drug prohibition violence.

The violence in Mexico has led to an unprecedented debate about the failures of drug prohibition and possible exit strategies from the unwinnable war. More and more people are calling for all options to be considered -- including the option of legalization. In February, the Latin American drug policy commission co-chaired by three ex-presidents, Cardoso of Brazil, Gaviria of Colombia and Zedillo of Mexico, broke new ground with a report calling for decriminalization of marijuana and the need to "break the taboo" on open and honest debate.

In the border city of El Paso, the city council passed a resolution in January calling on Congress to debate drug legalization as a way of reducing prohibition-related violence. And the attorney general of Arizona, in response to the growing violence in his state, suggested a debate to consider taxing and regulating marijuana in the same manner as alcohol.

The "Just Say No" advocates are politically astute in realizing that the out of control violence in Mexico has a huge impact on the conversation. It is understandable that they try to blame drug use for the problem. But the ground is shifting fast under their feet. More and more people are challenging 40 years of failed drug prohibition strategies. It is going to be hard to stop the growing understanding and voices that point out that it is not the plant or marijuana smoking, but the prohibition that causes the violence. And one day they will find themselves on the wrong side of history, supporters of a policy that promised a drug free world, but instead led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance.