I recently had the opportunity to talk with Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat running for the 16th District of Texas (El Paso and its environs), and a shoe-in for the seat. Among his many accomplishments, the former city councilman is a published author of the thoughtful if provocative book, Dealing Death and Drugs, which he wrote in 2011 with fellow councilwoman Susie Byrd.
In Dealing Death and Drugs, the two El Paso natives outline the drug war’s effects on their city and their sister city, Ciudad Juárez. Beginning with a history of the Juárez-El Paso smuggling corridor, the authors follow the evolution from the mom-and-pop operations of the prohibition era to the horrific cartel warfare of the past few years. They also highlight the tragic consequences of strict enforcement of marijuana laws, not only for the hundreds of thousands of Mexican families caught in the violence but also for American communities (especially minority-dominant ones) torn apart by illegal markets and widespread incarceration. They rightfully challenge two common myths: that marijuana is a gateway drug, and that price increases lower use.
Calculating the human and economic costs of drug trafficking and the current policies, they conclude (quite bravely for two public officials) that the “least bad” solution would be the legalization of marijuana. Marijuana would not be freely available, of course, but regulated and taxed. In fact, their suggested policies are quite similar to current tobacco laws—requiring buyers provide proof of age and identification, licensing producers, distributors, and sellers, limiting smoking to non-public spaces, and leading an advertising campaign to inform the public on marijuana’s negative health effects.
The authors recognize that legalization is not a silver bullet, able to cure society’s drug-related ills. Other illicit markets (for hard drugs, guns, and human trafficking) would still remain. With marijuana proceeds gone, criminal groups would likely diversify and expand their other illegal activities (a process already under way).
The extent to which marijuana legalization would decrease violence (a common argument for critics of current drug policies) is uncertain. Many point to prohibition, and the decline in violence in U.S. cities (especially Chicago) with the re-legalization of alcohol. But one can question whether these trends would repeat in the twenty-first century marketplace, and with a different illegal substance. A more fundamental challenge is forwarded by Emily Owens, a professor at Cornell University. Looking at U.S. statistics from the time, she argues that the prohibition era violence was driven largely by urbanization and immigration trends, not restrictive alcohol policies. If she is right, then the legalization/violence link is much weaker than most assume.
The juxtaposition of the U.S. and Mexican experience also questions the straightforward connection between the drug trade and violence. The United States has much more drug money (being the retail market) and probably more guns than Mexico, but today far lower levels of violence. El Paso and Ciudad Juárez present perhaps the starkest contrast: the Mexican city recorded over three thousand murders in 2010, while El Paso had five. This means that other factors matter, namely Mexico’s weak rule of law.
Whatever your take, it is refreshing to see a real debate about drug use and policy by someone who is and will be involved in making these types of policies. I hope it continues when O’Rourke joins the 113th Congress.
Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.