By Evan Carlo
We are currently in year 44 of the War on Drugs and year eight of the Mexican Campaign but not much progress has been made in defeating the Mexican drug cartels. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s declaration of war against the Mexican drug cartels in 2006, more than 60,000 people have died in drug related violence with another 26,000 missing. Despite this, the cartels are no closer to defeat. They still control large areas of Mexico, and even more frightening for Americans, the cartels have spread their operations deep into the United States, operating in more than 1,200 American communities. No matter how many cartel leaders are arrested or killed, the cartels will continue to operate and expand their reach. With the situation dire and Mexican citizens no longer tolerating the corruption that has plagued their country, maybe it is time to ask, “Should we nuke the drug cartels?”
Before I am denounced as a warmonger, let me be clear that by saying “nuke the drug cartels”, I do not mean unleashing 510 megatons of TNT on Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez. I mean hitting the cartels with our ultimate weapon – marijuana legalization. The phrase comes from a chapter in Lt. Col. Robert Dowd’s book “The Enemy is Us.”  Lt. Col. Dowd argues that marijuana legalization would be the equivalent of a nuclear bomb for the cartels, wiping them out. Legalization would allow businesses in the United States to sell previously illegal marijuana and compete with the cartels. This will affect the cartels in one of three ways: the cartels will lose market share and profits against legal U.S. businesses, the price of marijuana will fall to the point where it is not profitable for the cartels to operate, or the cartels will become legal businesses that no longer need to resort to violence to enforce contracts.
Similar arguments have been made by people on all sides of the political spectrum, reminiscent of 1920’s alcohol prohibition. With no legal competition, crime bosses such as Al Capone took advantage of the opportunity and created a black market for alcohol. The result was a crime wave of gangs fighting each other for control of the market. Homicide rates rose all over the country, especially in major cities such as Chicago. Corruption of federal, state and local law enforcement officers undermined the public’s trust in the rule of law. While some scholars have tried to downplay the negative effects of alcohol prohibition, from a security standpoint it was a disaster. For 14 years the mob ran the alcohol industry. That is, until the legalization ended the monopoly, the mob had on the industry and allowed legal competition to compete in a safe, regulated environment.
One cannot help but draw comparisons between 1920s Chicago to 2014 Mexico. It seems possible then that if legalization was the key to ending the alcohol cartels, drug legalization can end the drug cartels. While many have brought up this point before, there have been very few academic studies rigorously evaluating the effects of recently passed drug legalization propositions on the cartels.
For example, a Rand Corporation study from 2010 tried to predict the impact of California potentially legalizing marijuana. Despite claims otherwise, the study suggests that marijuana legalization would not have the large impact on cartels legalization advocates were hoping for. The study disputes the claim from U.S. officials that 60 percent of Mexican cartel profits come from marijuana, estimating it closer to 15 to 26 percent. Legalization in only California would affect 2 to 4 percent of the cartel’s export revenues. However, the study also claimed that if California were able to smuggle marijuana to other states, effectively legalizing marijuana nationwide, this would cause cartels to lose approximately 20 percent of their total drug export revenues.
A similar study by the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness that tried to predict the impact of legalization in Colorado, Oregon and Washington, made a somewhat similar claim. It predicted that legalization would cause drug revenues for cartels to drop 22 to 30 percent in each individual state. If the results of both studies hold for each state, the cartels could possibly lose 20 to 30 percent of their revenues from selling to the United States were nationwide legalization fully implemented.
While these studies should be viewed with a grain of salt, there is some empirical evidence from recent legalization efforts to back them up. With just a few states legalizing marijuana, farmers in the Sinaloa region of Mexico have stopped planting marijuana since the wholesale price of marijuana has plummeted, fitting with predictions that legalization will hurt the marijuana profits of cartels. Drug cartels are finding it difficult to compete in the marijuana market now that it faces competition from the United States. Does this evidence prove drug legalization is the weapon that can destroy the cartels? Well, not quite.
Despite the evidence that legalization could damage the cartels in the marijuana market, this will most likely not destroy the cartels completely. The cartels have been able to diversify their business by pushing into harder drugs. This diversification makes the cartels more immune to changes in the marijuana market even if more states legalize. Even though farmers in the Sinaloa region plant less marijuana, they have shifted into planting more opium for heroin production.
Advocates of legalizing all drugs, including hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin, will counter that this would not be a problem if all drugs were legalized. Regardless if this is true, it is highly improbable that harder drugs will be legalized in the near future. While a majority of U.S. citizens favor marijuana legalization, very few favor legalizing harder drugs such as heroin. Thus, politically it is impractical for hard drug legalization to be a policy option in harming the drug cartels.
So which side is right in this debate? Well in reality, neither side is. It is true that cartels have been able to diversify to the point where they do not need to rely solely on marijuana to survive. Even if the United States legalizes all drugs, which is highly unlikely, cartels can still make money moving into non-drug related illegal activities such as smuggling, extortion, kidnapping and prostitution.
Drug legalization will not be equivalent to nuking the cartels, but legalization can still hurt the cartels. Even if marijuana is the only drug legalized, it will still damage the cartels despite their attempts to diversify into new business areas. Even the Rand Corporation’s conservative estimates show the cartels will lose a significant chunk of their drug trade revenue.
While marijuana legalization may not be the nuke Lt. Col. Robert Dowd hoped for, it may be the “airstrike” we need against the cartels. Military history shows us that airstrikes need to be combined with ground assaults to be effective. Defeating the cartels and providing better security to Mexico and the United States, will require both “airstrikes” and “ground assaults.” Mexico should continue to use force to interrupt supply chains and target cartel leaders. The Calderon Administration has achieved moderate success in this area, such as when the Beltrán Leyva cartel was effectively destroyed after armed forces killed its leader in 2009. Mexico’s strategy also needs to emphasize cracking down on corruption and targeting the money laundering that finances drug cartels’ bribes to government officials. However, force and fighting corruption alone will not solve this problem. Even if some people may still be uncomfortable with drug legalization, it should be considered as a useful policy option to use in combination with these harder tactics.
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