Mexico’s decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use at the federal level is a step in the right direction toward undermining the widespread violence that has plagued the country—and several others. However, is Mexico actually capable of significantly reducing violence and crime without the explicit and earnest support of the United States?
Contrary to popular stereotypes, Mexico has proven to be far more progressive on a number of key issues than the United States. Historically, these issues include genocide against indigenous possessors of coveted land and resources, as well as the enslavement of Africans (which existed in Mexico, though for a relatively brief period of history, and in a much less brutal and widespread fashion than in the U.S., Cuba, Brazil, and other European colonies). Modernly, this trend can be seen in such issues as capital punishment, access to health care, and now, drug policy.
While many U.S. states have taken steps toward decriminalization and treatment for drug users, there is no comprehensive federal law that regulates these steps, and there likely will never be. We purport to be a nation grounded on the principles of human rights, justice, and compassion. However, none of our federal leaders have taken steps toward a comprehensive re-imagining of drug policy. Instead, administration after administration turns a blind eye to the issue, leaving state governments to enact laws that vary by region, scope, and effectiveness.
The lack of practical, comprehensive drug policy results in selective policing and sentencing. Police are overly brutal toward drug users and dealers in inner cities, while suburban youth routinely attend raves and other events with no fear of repercussions.
The problem is even more obvious abroad. Ciudad Juárez has seen over 1,200 deaths this year, and Tijuana over 400. These are Mexican border towns—crucial entering points for smugglers. These massacres are occurring within several miles of towns like El Paso, San Diego, and Nogales, Arizona. But our officials continue to ignore the problem, behaving as if these issues (and the immigration that inevitably accompanies them) are not our problem.
Demand for drugs grown in Latin America overwhelmingly stems from the U.S. The demand for cocaine and heroine in American cities is the single most contributing factor to violence and chaos in places like Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia. However, our news media, as well as film and music industries, regard this as a purely Latin problem—a phenomenon that proves detrimental to the functionality of the countries involved. Headlines such as “Mexico’s Bloody Drug War” (the Weekly Standard) and “Mexico’s Hopeless Drug War” (the Wall Street Journal) serve to fuel the assumptions that drugs and crime are rampant in Latin America while governments are ineffective and unable to seriously curb them. While this is an effective way to sell newspapers—reinforcing the popularly held beliefs of the public is not a new strategy—it serves only to exacerbate the problem by failing to identify our own role as the both the cause and effect of violence, uprisings, instability, and fear across borders.
To the administration: I challenge you to make a comprehensive change in the way we handle drug users. Only by altering the illegal status of these substances can we undermine the drug lords who benefit from their illegality. The so-called war on drugs, which includes Plan Colombia and our modern revision of it, is simply a war on Latin America’s disenfranchised, while the culture of drugs and over-indulgence in our own country is encouraged through all media and political norms.