The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Legalization Won’t Cure America’s Drug Problem

Voters in Colorado and Washington have approved marijuana legalization, and polls show national support for it are at an all-time high. But those who think legal pot can quell violent crime in the drug trade are mistaken. The Atlantic explains:

The notion that legalizing marijuana will cripple Mexico’s brutal drug cartels has gained steam in recent years, and finally boiled over last month when Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Adults 21 and over in both states will be allowed to possess up to an ounce of processed pot, reversing a prohibition policy that stood for the better part of a century. It’s unclear whether the federal government will tolerate the repeal, but if legal pot remains the law of the land, it is widely assumed that Mexican drug cartels will be out several billion dollars in annual revenue.

But talk to entrepreneurs familiar with the existing marijuana industry in Washington and Colorado—and to law enforcement agents who deal with gang crime—and there is reason for skepticism. Not only have the cartels diversified their portfolios (to borrow language applied to other multinational, multibillion dollar operations); the Mexican suppliers have already been edged out of the local markets in the two new green states.

Even if marijuana is legalized nationwide, gangs will be still able to thrive by selling cocaine, heroin, and other illicit substances. There’s little reason to think it would put a dent in their profits, either:

“I just don’t see the legislation of marijuana causing any problems for the criminals,” Gagliardi said. “The gangs are still going to grow marijuana and they’re still going to sell marijuana, only now it will be legal for them to walk around with an ounce supply individually packaged and not have any repercussions.”

We’ve pointed out before that there’s no good solution to the drug war. The current policies are costly, ineffective and harmful, but all the alternatives have their own costs too. (See this piece from The American Interest about some of the problems with the Colorado and Washington laws.) More widespread marijuana use will create new challenges, and legalization won’t erase the problem of drug-related crime.

For instance, there will always be penalties and blood tests for those who work while under the influence, particularly for those who operate heavy machinery or work closely with children. There will also have to be tough laws against sales to minors, and punishment for selling pot to high school kids may be tougher than it is now.

Published on December 5, 2012 2:55 pm