03/01/2007 12:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mexico President Calderon Should Not Repeat Drug War Failures of the Past

Mexico's new president, Felipe Calderon, seems to be doing all the right things in cracking down on Mexico's drug traffickers. He's appointed new people to key military and criminal justice positions, deployed troops to quell drug violence, reasserted federal police power, extradited a few major traffickers to the United States, and given a green light to legislation clarifying Mexico's drug laws.

But all this provides little reason to hope that Mexico has really turned a corner in its efforts to control the illegal drug trade. For a guide to what's in store, one need only look at past sexenios (the six year terms of Mexican presidents).

What President Calderon is doing now differs little from what his predecessors did at the start of their terms. But the results are always the same -- encouraging at first but then it all starts up again. Drug trafficking gangs re-group with new leaders and new connections. Previously incorruptible officers are newly corrupted. Police of all ranks, and all shades of probity, tremble in fear of assassins' bullets. And Mexicans once again wonder why the cycle never really stops.

Some things do change, of course -- like the identities of the traffickers and the police who pursue and protect them, and the drugs they traffic. Methamphetamine is hot now, fueled in part by legislative and regulatory actions in the United States that raised the cost of domestic production and gave a boost to methamphetamine "super-labs" south of the border. Something else will replace it one day, just as marijuana was once replaced by heroin, and heroin by cocaine, and cocaine by methamphetamine.

So what should Calderon do?

First, crack down hard on violence, drug-related or not -- and don't worry so much about the drug trafficking itself. That requires thinking strategically about drug enforcement, targeting the most violent people and criminal organizations, and even promoting non-violent solutions to conflicts among traffickers. It's a vice control challenge, albeit on a state and even national level.

Second, learn from the Europeans, Canadians and others who treat drug misuse primarily as a public health rather than criminal justice problem. Illicit drug use, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis are spreading in Mexico. Harm reduction policies that focus on reducing death, disease and other harms of addiction have proven effective around the world, including in Latin America. If he wants a model for what not to do, just look north.

Third, think about this problem not as a politician but as a conservative and an economist. It's too bad the famed economist, Milton Friedman, who died a few months ago, is no longer available to advise the new Mexican leader. Drugs are bad, he'd tell him, but prohibition is worse. As Friedman wrote to the first President Bush's first drug czar, William Bennett:

"Of course the problem is demand, but it is not only demand, it is demand that must operate through repressed and illegal channels. Illegality creates obscene profits that finance the murderous tactics of the drug lords; illegality leads to the corruption of law enforcement officials; illegality monopolizes the efforts of honest law forces so that they are starved for resources to fight the simpler crimes of robbery, theft and assault.

Drugs are a tragedy for addicts. But criminalizing their use converts that tragedy into a disaster for society, for users and non-users alike. Our experience with the prohibition of drugs is a replay of our experience with the prohibition of alcoholic beverages."

I suspect President Calderon knows, in his heart of hearts, that Friedman was right -- and that Mexico is doomed to repeat the follies of the past until Friedman's policy becomes Mexico's policy. His predecessor, Vicente Fox, knew it, and blurted it out once, but someone or something persuaded him to keep his true views to himself. Other Latin American leaders, past and present, know it too, but only a few dare speak their mind. All know that Washington does not take such words lightly.

The new president doesn't need to say so out loud, but he can discreetly encourage others to do so - in the media and academia, in business arenas and justice colloquia, and especially among Mexico's elder statesmen. Good policy often follows from vigorous and open debate. U.S. officials hate the thought, but how could they object to a debate over the ideas of a Nobel Prize winning economist who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan in 1988 and was honored at the White House by President Bush on his ninetieth birthday?

Ethan Nadelmann is executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance ( and co-author of Policing the Globe: Criminalization and Crime Control in International Relations.