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Legalization back in the drug czar's vocabulary, but he still lacks knowledge of proper versus common nouns

The ONDCP has shut down its old blog — PushingBack.com — and replaced it with ofSubstance.gov.

The ONDCP’s Aya Collins explains the change in So, What’s in a Name? After reading it, I still have no idea what the change means. One positive thing is they’ve removed the comments field. The existence of a comments field with no comments ever posted in the old blog was an obvious sign that the ONDCP was clueless about blogging. Since they never have intended to have an open dialog on their site (nor will they ever), it’s appropriate to switch to a simple “Contact Us” option.

They still have some basic coding problems. The main page isn’t designed properly, so the text extends below the white background (at least in the two browsers I use) and becomes unreadable.

Back to the title of this post…

Director Kerlikowske can certainly try to bury his head in the sand and pretend that if he can’t see legalization, it doesn’t exist. But that obviously hasn’t worked. He’s facing the “L” word everywhere he turns, and now it’s getting to the point where he has no choice but respond to it.

For this purpose, he selects useful tool Viridiana Rios — a graduate student at Harvard who hails from Mexico City — with a guest post at ofSubstance: Legalization will not end the violence.

As the situation in Mexico and along U.S. border towns has become desperate, calls for legalization are intensifying. The city of El Paso, Texas, passed a resolution calling for studying the merits of legalization as a means to curb violence, and the Arizona Attorney General has also discussed the option of legalization in front of the US Congress. California is considering a measure in November’s election.

Might legalization help the situation? My view is likely no. Any legalization attempt focuses on the marijuana markets which are not the core of the violence problem. It is highly valued drugs such as cocaine or heroin the ones which organized criminals are fighting for, it is these drugs that fund terrorist and criminal groups around the world.

The highly valued drugs are those that provide profits to the criminals. Just because cocaine or heroin have a higher value per pound, doesn’t make them more valued. Some estimates have indicated that Mexican cartels get 60% of their income from marijuana. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, then it has a major impact and marijuana is a highly valued drug. The fact that Afghanistan is also turning heavily to marijuana growing indicates that it’s a very valued crop to them.

The cartels are not fighting over drugs. They’re fighting over control of the economics of drugs. As an economist, she should understand this.

Even in the unlikely scenario of an all-drugs liberalization, it is unrealistic to expect a significant diminishing of the influence of Mexican cartels. Cartels are organizations involved in multiple activities that cause harm, such as human and weapons trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion. They have bought politicians and officials in Mexico not only for the purpose of freely conducting their drug trade activities, but also to have a safe haven for their other businesses. It is hard to imagine that they would simply disappear, especially if the government still relied on sources in Mexico and Colombia to import their legal cocaine. In fact, it is likely that they would compete with open market sources to import cheaper and purer drugs and avoid paying tariffs or associated legal costs associated with the new regime. Cartels are in business because illegality pays, and pays well. They will not become legal entrepreneurs because such is not their competitive advantage. They have the know-how of illegal trafficking and will find a way to do in other markets.

There’s so much sloppy scholarship there, it’s really embarrassing. First of all, the reason that they’re able to buy politicians and officials is because they’re getting obscene amounts of money from the drug trade. Without that money, there’s no way that they could maintain their infrastructure — again, basic economics. And kidnapping, extortion, etc. cannot begin to match the money in drugs.

As far as competing with legal supply, name one other instance where this has occurred. Oh, sure, there will be some relatively small black market in drugs in a legal market framework, but in a legalized market, the vast majority of consumers prefer to follow the law.

The cartels could end up being like the DVD pirates, or those who sell cigarettes out of their car trunk to avoid high taxes — a pathetic shade of their former selves. That would be a far greater win over the cartels than we have ever experienced through prohibition.

Part of the problem is with the naiveté of Ms. Rios, who thinks “the solution is in fixing the judicial systems” — a tall order when the cartels can buy them wholesale. But we also hear this from a lot of prohibitionists… “Legalization won’t stop the cartels, because they’re evil, and they won’t just go away peacefully.”

The real problem is that when we talk about cartels, drug reformers are talking about the common noun, and prohibitionists are talking about the proper noun.

Legalization will eliminate the cartels (common noun) in that it will eliminate the economic conditions for cartels in general to be created, develop and flourish. Legalization will not eliminate the violence of the “Smith” Cartel or the “Jones” Cartel. It will cripple them, but the core of their groups will still be bad guys and have to be hunted down (more easily without their financial infrastructure).

The problem with prohibitionists is that they keep going after the Smith Cartel (proper noun), and when they take them down, think that they’ve accomplished something. But prohibition provides the conditions for an endless supply of cartels (common noun), so eliminating one does nothing in the long haul.

Legalization is the only solution that can eliminate the conditions for the existence of cartels. And while going after the murderous criminals who are in individual “Cartels” is a good thing, ultimately it’s a pathetically fruitless enterprise unless you take away the black market that will fund their replacements.

[Thanks, Tom]

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11 comments to Legalization back in the drug czar’s vocabulary, but he still lacks knowledge of proper versus common nouns

  • Just me

    Even in the unlikely scenario of an all-drugs liberalization, it is unrealistic to expect a significant diminishing of the influence of Mexican cartels. Cartels are organizations involved in multiple activities that cause harm, such as human and weapons trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion. They have bought politicians and officials in Mexico not only for the purpose of freely conducting their drug trade activities, but also to have a safe haven for their other businesses. It is hard to imagine that they would simply disappear…

    So they admit they see the various activities the cartels use to make money. They also admit the are not willing to start chipping away at these activities, one at a time till they have no activities in which to make the money that causes this governmental corruption….oh thats right…this money IS flowing into the Mexican government. So what make one think it isnt flowing into our government too? Maybe why many fight ending prohibition? They would be ending their cash flow? Seems like a likely senario to me. Didnt the CIA get caught shipping drugs into the US? YES ! What would make one think this has stopped? Hummm…so who is the cartel(bad guys) and who is the government(good guys?I think not).

    This is all starting to sound like two sides of the same coin…kind of like our two party one party system. Seems they are enablers to this because they are drunk with it too.

    Ya I love going out on limbs, sometimes they are stronger than they look and hold the weight.

  • claygooding

    The tax payers paid for a spring break for Clinton and a crew of bureaucrats and in an interview assured Calderon that our laws would not change on marijuana. She also assured him that the medical marijuana market would not cut into the recreational marijuana market that Mexico exports to the US.
    The truth is that Calderon is not fighting the cartels because they are hurting Mexico’s economy,they are the economy. All he wants is the cartels out so the government
    can take over the market and the money.

  • Tim

    Sounds like they got suckered in by a ‘rebranding’ expert as their internal polling, as all the ones in the media, show they are being spanked in public opinion.

    The problem is that there is a fundamental problem with their product — prohibtion propaganda. The marketplace has devalued their product to the point that only in government would you see them trying to sell such tripe.

  • Duncan

    I always wonder, is it that they’re stupid enough to believe this bullshit, or do they just think we’re stupid enough to swallow it?

  • permanentilt

    Absolutely. Prohibitionists, as well as most “God-fearing conservatives”, want to simply label people as “good” or “evil” and fight a war against the “evil” in the name of “good”. But in truth, there is NO SUCH THING as good and evil.

    True, in the drug trade, there are some truly vile characters, but MOST people working for the cartels are simply normal people faced with an option, they can either 1) take a larger amount of money than they can make working at any average job, feeding their family, and getting protection from the cartel as long as they do their bidding or 2) Reject the money, putting their life and the lives of their family in imminent danger, and work for mere pennies a day at labor intensive job that probably won’t even be around for more than a year or two.

    HMMMMMMM I wonder what I would choose??!?!?

    The truth is even the most brutal of the cartel members wouldn’t be so cruel if they were not being paid so highly to be.

    Which brings me to this ridiculous argument that cutting out the drug trade would simply move the cartels on to other illegal activities. Does anyone honestly believe that if there is an illegal stream of revenue to be made, that the cartels are not capitalizing on it NOW? The cannot simply move into a new market, because they already own the other market!

    And this notion that marijuana is not a valuable crop, wow. The simple fact is that marijuana has by far the LARGEST market of any illegal drug. Marijuana has ten times as many users as cocaine, the next highest consumed illegal drug. The marijuana that these cartels grow is insanely cheap to produce. The huge markup is precisely why it is so valuable. No matter how adamantly they push their drugs, cocaine, meth, heroin, extacy, ect. will NEVER have the market marijuana does!

    The fact that it is 60% of cartel profits is important for another reason. The money to process other drugs like heroin and cocaine comes from marijuana profits. In this way, marijuana probably represents even MORE than 60% because marijuana is easy to produce so this money allows them to invest in producing other lucrative drugs.

    Revisionist economics is killing this country in so many ways, not the least of which is the “Drug War”.

  • claygooding

    The drug warriors are trying to downplay the importance of the amount of cash that cannabis plays in the cartel’s income,because it is one fact they cannot dispute,removal of cannabis from their product line would do more damage too the cartels than all the money our government has spent trying to stop them.
    Last fall,it was 70% or more,as reported by the DEA and Mexico’s government sources, now it is down to 60%. Within the next month,someone will be claiming that it is only 50% of the cartels cash flow.

  • Josh Fiero

    Are you sure Rios isn’t on your side? Consider the following quotation: “Cartels are in business because illegality pays, and pays well.” Could any advocate for legalization have put it more succinctly?

  • In the name of honest debate, Ms. Rios is not a drug warrior. She’s legitimately interested in reducing the negative impacts associated with the drug trade, including those caused by prohibition. We can, however, debate her arguments and conclusion.

    The central debate arising from Rios’ piece and your analysis is what “significant diminishing” of the cartels means, and how to achieve it.

    I personally disagree with Rios that legalizing marijuana would have little to no impact on the capacity of organized crime in Mexico; the 60% figure (from NDIC, I believe) should not be ignored. Yet marijuana has been a Mexican crop for years whereas the violence has only spiked recently. What do we make of this?

    Further, Rios is right to point out that the cartels in Mexico have diversified: sadly, considering Mexico’s weak and corrupt-able institutions, organized crime will survive, absent significant change in the justice sector, even were drug profits to dry up. But drugs provide billions annually; how does this compare to the other activities organized criminals engage in?

    So… it appears to me the title of Rios’ post is strictly correct: legalization will not end the violence in itself. But it is also misleading: legalization likely could reduce violence, perhaps dramatically.

    Finally, you’re totally right that “Of Substance” makes no sense — with or without an exclamation mark.

  • permanentilt

    “Yet marijuana has been a Mexican crop for years whereas the violence has only spiked recently. What do we make of this?”

    The rise in marijuana use since the mid 80’s as well as the crackdown on the Caribbean Corridor have slowly allowed the cartels to get bigger and bigger, the violence might not have always been there, but the cartels have. They have earned enough money now, plus have the knowledge and experience drug lords like Pablo Escobar had. The profits have gotten bigger, therefore the bribes have gotten bigger, so police and military are easily bought off now. Also weapon stockpiles have gotten bigger.

    Basically, since the mid 80’s when Mexico was thrust into the center of the drug trade, the stakes have gradually risen to the boiling point they are at now.

  • Josh wrote:

    Are you sure Rios isn’t on your side? Consider the following quotation: “Cartels are in business because illegality pays, and pays well.” Could any advocate for legalization have put it more succinctly?

    Actually, Josh, that’s not that good. The statement “illegality pays, and pays well” is not necessarily true. Rape doesn’t pay well, nor does driving without seatbelts, yet both are illegal. And, in fact, that’s part of the real problem with Rios’ argument. She follows the misconception that the cartels can just replace the massive lucrative drug income with almost anything else as long as it’s illegal. Not true. Not even close.

    Stratfor estimates the total money coming into Mexico from illegal drugs to be $35-40 billion annually. That’s unbelievable. That’s roughly 1/5 the amount of the entire income of the national Mexican government. How do you replace $35-40 billion?

    Nina, thanks for your response, and I agree that Ms. Rios is not a drug warrior in the traditional sense. I believe she truly wants to reduce the negative impacts associated with the drug trade, but as long as she supports prohibition, she is supporting the drug war. Rather than calling her a drug warrior, I called her a “useful tool,” which she is. She lends a scholar’s imprimatur to the drug czar’s blog, allowing him to act as though learned people have thoroughly analyzed the options and come scientifically to the conclusion that legalization will not work, when in fact she’s just expressing some unsupported opinions while she works on her real passions — justice and poverty (which I applaud). What’s disturbing is that she seems not to be applying her economics and math training to gaining a true understanding of the black market.

    The headline, yes, is technically true. It’s also a straw man. The actual content of her argument is completely unsupported opinion.

  • David Marsh

    While Hillary Clinton is in Mexico trying to shore up the crumbling “War on Drugs” strategy, four Latin American experts sat down with Charlie Rose and had: A discussion about Latin America, Friday April 9 2010.

    After listening to this program it appears that Secretary Clinton and Director Kerlikowske, are using the Roosevelt play book for Latin America. The Teddy Roosevelt play book, walk softly and carry a big stick. Roosevelt’s big enemy was malaria. The problem now is money and machine guns. Ms. Rios might want to update her post graduate research in the face of significant opposition to such a sophomoric argument.

    Link to complete transcript: http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/10957

    ***
    GREG GRANDIN: “That we didn’t touch on, and that is the militarization of the U.S. anti-narcotic policy”,…. “the U.S. has spent over a trillion dollars over the last, since maybe 1989, and it has been a complete, complete disaster”……….

    JOHN COATSWORTH: It is time to end the drug prohibition regime and find some alternative to it that is more sensible.

    MICHAEL SHIFTER: That is the problem. Everybody knows that it’s not working. But politically, there aren’t a lot of profiles in courage in Washington on this issue that are willing to stand up and say it. Because they are worried that politically, it is very, very difficult.

    KEVIN CASAS-ZAMORA: And it is about ending the prohibition to think about it.

    GREG GRANDIN: Yes.

    JOHN COATSWORTH: More than anything. Yes.

    KEVIN CASAS-ZAMORA: That is the first step.

    JOHN COATSWORTH: You can’t even use the term “harm reduction” if you are an official in the U.S. government, because it’s too scary. You will get too many congressmen coming after you. And that’s the first step that has to be taken.

    MICHAEL SHIFTER: In the meantime, Mexico is going through a very rough period, and they need help. I mean, you know, this is, I think this is the long-term solution, reframing the drug issue. But it’s not going to happen tomorrow. And Mexico is facing an urgent crisis. And so, there needs to be also immediate support.

    ***

    The discussion is 40+ minutes for the first 35 minutes examines Latin Americas emergence as a world, political and economic, force with Brazil as the new center of power in a mostly democratic region. Then they had the courage to broach the subject of the “failed War on Drugs” elephant in the room.

    These were not your run of the mill talking heads. The panel consisted of; Kevin Casas-Zamora ( Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution and Former Vice President, Costa Rica), Michael Shifter(Incoming President, Inter-American Dialogue) , John Coatsworth ( Dean, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University and Director, Columbia’s Institute for Latin American Studies) and Greg Grandon ( Associate Professor, Latin American history, New York University)

    The end of Prohibition is not just the end of bad public policy for the United States; its repeal lays at the core of political, economic, and social solutions for the entire Western Hemisphere.