LONDON – Prohibition was a failure in the 1920s, and, for similar reasons, the so-called war on drugs has been a disaster. Forty years after U.S. President Richard Nixon declared this war, consumption worldwide is up, violence has increased and the rule of law has collapsed, especially in Latin America.
Basic economics tells us that when there is artificial pressure on supply, prices go up and margins increase — the perfect incentives for criminal activities. The same mistake was made in the United States almost a century ago with Prohibition. As early as 1925, some observers started to see that this policy, far from stopping crime, was leading to the formation of large networks of well-funded crime syndicates.
U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932 partly due to his campaign promise to end Prohibition. People who originally favored Prohibition, such as John D. Rockefeller Jr., later fought for its repeal because of the devastating effects it had on agriculture and industry.
The dire results of the war on drugs are clear. Mexico is paying a very high price — a pound of flesh multiplied by a million — for a policy dictated in Washington with the clear support of the United Nations. At least 50,000 people have died in my country as a consequence of this policy in the past decade alone.
In a recent global report on homicides produced by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, it is suggested that poverty and inequality are the main factors that explain the increase in crime rates across Latin America. Curiously in Africa, a region much poorer than Latin America, homicide rates have not shot up and the U.N. report does not offer a coherent explanation why this is the case.
Nevertheless, the report offers valuable information. For example, in 2012, almost half a million people were murdered worldwide. More than a third of the killings took place in Latin America; Europe, by contrast, accounted for only 5 percent of the homicides. In most regions around the world, violence is decreasing, but not here.
A great deal of the violence that is bringing down our region is a product of the war on drugs The criminal justice systems throughout Latin America and the U.S. have been undermined as the courts are clogged with victimless crimes such as drug possession. The prisons are overcrowded with victimless criminals. The U.S., in particular, is a clear example of this phenomenon, with a quarter of the world’s incarcerations, almost half of them a product of drug-related felonies.
This generates impunity for criminals. They can’t all be caught, and they can’t all be prosecuted with criminal justice systems and law enforcement agencies that are so overwhelmed.
The U.N. report correctly points out that there is a clear correlation between levels of impunity and homicide rates, a phenomenon that is unmanageable in some regions of Mexico and Central America. It should be noted that seven of the eight most violent countries in the world are located on the cocaine route to the U.S.
Countries such as Honduras, Venezuela, Belize and El Salvador reported rates of 90, 54, 45 and 41 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively. These are intolerable levels. The inability of the state to bring murderers to justice is a key factor in explaining this violence. Something is definitely and fundamentally wrong in Latin American criminal justice systems, and this subversion of the justice systems is corroding everything else in its wake. The war on drugs is sustained by a circular logic in which the damage generated by this policy is attributed instead to drug-related activities in order to justify it, a perverse inference that generates never-ending violence.
It’s been more than 40 years since the war on drugs was declared in Washington. Mexico has blindly followed the lead of its northern neighbor throughout this period, and there is little to show for it beyond the rise of violence and the steady decomposition of society. The economic forces are too vast. This is a multibillion-dollar industry that has subverted social order and the rule of law. Prohibition only means that the state has renounced its right to regulate narcotics by leaving this activity and its enforcement at the sole discretion of the drug lords.
This war is ravaging our hemisphere. Many know this. But few have the courage to speak up. So here it is: Let’s legalize drugs and regulate them, starting with cannabis. It should be noted that campaigns against tobacco, which is more addictive than cannabis, have been successful. Let’s redirect scarce resources to health care and education to highlight the dangers of substance abuse and free up our law enforcement and judicial institutions to focus on violent crime, corruption and the enforcement of property rights, gradually reestablishing the rule of law.
The U.N. promised decades ago a “world free of drugs.” This never happened. Many more people are dying as a consequence of this policy than by consumption of illicit substances. Let’s face it, the war on drugs is a fiasco.
Ricardo Salinas is chairman and chief mentor of Grupo Salinas, which employs more than 80,000 people in the Americas. The opinions expressed here are his own.