Saturday, October 16, 2010

Drug policy lessons from Prohibition, Colombia, and Mexico

This is my translation of an article entitled "Estados Unidos: se acerca la legalizacion de las drogas?" from the excellent Razon Publica website.

United States: are we close to legalizing drugs?

It is thought that Washington might change drug policy due to the increasing violence on the US-Mexico border. But the obstacles to legalization are different than in Mexico, and the sources of pressure to legalize are also different.

Prohibition in the US

The violence associated with the narcotrafficking that currently plagues the Mexican side of the border has led various analysts to think that a possible expansion of violence into US territory might lead the US government to legalize drugs. For example, in William Ospina's article "When the monster arrives at the door" in the September 19th edition of El Espectador he affirms:

"Everyone knows when drugs will get legalized. Exactly when narco-violence crosses the border and becomes a security nightmare for the US, as happened with the liquor mafias in the 1920s. During Prohibition, gangsters took over the streets, unleashed weeks of terror on New York and Chicago, corrupted the police and the courts, and cast a shadow of insecurity over the United States. Only then did lawmakers understand that this was not merely a police or legal war, but that Prohibition itself was what gave strength to this clandestine business, and in the end they saw that alcohol was less dangerous than the mafias that sold it."

Of course I share Ospina's position regarding the frustrating inefficiency of current Prohibition-style drug laws. Nevertheless, I differ in certain points of his prognosis relating to these policies in the United States.

A gangster a week

Firstly, the violence in Chicago and New York during Prohibition was not comparable to the violence that Colombia lived in the 1980s and 90s, or that which Mexico suffers today. The liquor mafias took over Chicago in the middle of the 1920s. Between 1925 and 1929 the number of gangsters killed in Chicago was enormous, 227, or about 4 and a half per month, just over one a week. And in the famous St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929, Capone's Italian gang killed the Irish gang of O'Banion, killing seven gangsters. This massacre was a great event in the history of Mob violence, and inspired a huge social reaction that contributing to the repeal of Prohibition.

Murder rate

Secondly, there is no doubt that Prohibition of alcohol and later of other drugs has contributed substantially to the murder rate in the United States. Professor Miron (1999), who has put together long-term econometric studies, concludes that the murder rate is between 25 and 75 percent higher than it would be if Prohibition-style laws didn't exist.

It is interesting to note that murder rates in the United States have decreased substantially, from their maximum of 10 per 100000 inhabitants in 1993, to 6 per 100000 in 2007. Other sources present a rate lower than 5 in 2009.
If Miron's estimations are accurate, the repression of alcohol and then of other psychoactive drugs has increased the 2007-2009 murder rate by 1.25 and 2.58 per 100000.

These numbers, compared with the 2009 homicide rate in Colombia (35) and Mexico (14) are very low, and show that structural and institutional factors in these countries bear the chief responsibility. There is no doubt that without illegal drugs, without illegal trafficking of people, without arms smuggling, that is to say that if there were no profitable illegal activities, the rates of violence in Colombia and in Mexico would be much lower. The question is thus why the contributing factors of violence are so much more effective in Colombia and Mexico than in the US and other countries.

Violence and social control

Thirdly, Ospina prognosticates that levels of violence similar to those of Colombia or Mexico will come to the United States. Of course anything is possible. Nevertheless, history suggests that although these levels might rise in the US, they will probably remain far below the violence in the other two countries. Social control in the United States is much stronger, and violence has tended to concentrate itself in minority groups that are not part of the main current in the country. Surely discrimination, injustice, and other reasons might account for the violence in these groups, but the reality is that the United States has much stronger controls imposed by society than exist in Colombia or Mexico.

Prohibition of alcohol

Fourthly, Prohibition of alcohol in the United States was very different from the current prohibition against drugs. The 1920s laws went against consumption in bars, associated with prostitution, than against consumption per se.

In the 19th century the Industrial Revolution increased employment opportunities in urban manufacturing, and attracted a strong migration of Germans, Italians, and Irish to the US, and these groups consumed substantially more alcohol than the typical US peasantry. The population of the large industrial cities grew rapidly, giving rise to overcrowding and problems of public health and violence. In these cities arose bars and saloons where workers consumed liquor and spent important shares of their salaries.

This inspired a massive movement against saloons, led by religious and feminist groups that sought to protect families. It is notable that the feminist movement had two major goals: the Prohibition of alcohol, and women's suffrage. Prohibition was its first achievement in the 18th amendment to the Constitution, and suffrage was the second achievement, with the 19th amendment.

Prohibition of alcohol was not total, like cocaine, heroin, or other drugs. Alcohol has many industrial uses that demanded a continued production. Prohibition allowed alcohol use for ritual, religious, and medical purposes. Furthermore, production and consumption was not prohibited within the home. In other words, people could produce a "personal dose". In effect it was inconceivable in that era that the State would limit what people did within their homes.

What was prohibited was the production of alcoholic beverages for sale.
In other words it was perfectly acceptable for the majority of people in the US to drink a glass of wine with their food in the heart of their families. What was not permitted was for men to get drunk in bars and spend their wages on alcohol while their wives and children starved.

Another important difference is the fact that alcohol wasn't forbidden in other countries, including the neighbors of the US, which created an opportunity for smuggling, and problems in the fight against alcohol's distribution and consumption.

The above shows three major points.

One is that the dominant current in US society was divided with respect to alcohol, and social support for Prohibition was much weaker than the generalized support today and in the past for prohibition of drugs. Thus eliminating Prohibition of alcohol was easier politically than ending the current prohibition on drugs.

The second point is that religious, ethical, and moral factors were important in the promotion of Prohibition, and also in the process leading to its repeal.

Third is that the effect of Prohibition on police and political corruption was much more important than violence in repeal of the law.


In Colombia, moral arguments are considered deceitful. This is to say that an argument based on morality or values is used as a smokescreen to hide the true intentions of whoever makes the argument.

This position
is constitent with a society in which amoral individualism is prevalent, in which anything goes, and where people don't care about the consequences of their actions on others. Such people cannot conceive that there exist others motivated by true moral reasons.

Legalization isn't easy

Fifthly, for the US it is not easy to "legalize" drugs. During the past hundred years the country has promoted an International Drug Control Regime that only accepts medical and scientific uses for drugs included on the lists put forth by three UN conventions on the topic. These conventions have clauses that make them bulletproof, difficult to change.

The conventions have created another dilemma for the federal government. On the one hand, in some states there are movements to make these laws more flexible, but on the other hand, the federal government is trapped by the international conventions it has promoted. In the UN, the United States has a very complex agenda in which drugs are not a major issue. If the US pressured the UN to change the drug conventions, it would lose credibility in other areas.

The prison problem

Nevertheless, there exist other factors that would promote a change in repressive anti-drug policies. To start with, the cost of these policies are already too high. For example in the fight against drugs many state legislatures approved laws that stipulate minimum sentencing for drug-related crimes. This, and the policy of arresting drug users and smalltime dealers, have filled the prisons with convicts sentenced for nonviolent crimes.

about 1.6 million people are arrested every year for drug-related crimes, and the prisons hold a bit more than 600000 such prisoners, without counting those who are in jail for crimes committed while under the influence of drugs. The high courts have spoken in favor of human rights for prisoners and have demanded that the states construct comfortable prisons that avoid overcrowding.

It costs between 40 and 50 thousand dollars a year to maintain a prisoner. The result is that these costs have gravely affected state budgets, which are in the red in the current recession.

A dilemma in California

California, for example, is going through an interesting dilemma. On the one hand it has the court order to construct new prisons to house excess convicts. But it can also set free a number of prisoners to eliminate the excess. Because drug laws don't permit an early release for inmates who must complete a minimum sentence, the state is obligated to release more dangerous criminals such as rapists, murderers, armed robbers, etc., that have complete a portion of their sentences. This phenomenon generates more political pressure to change drug laws than does gang violence on the border.

To conclude, the possibility of a change in anti-drug policies in the US is remote, and fiscal costs may play a greater role than a possible increase in violence in the country.

Any process to ease drug laws will create huge dilemmas for the federal government, which is trapped in the international anti-drug
regime that it has promoted.

Why is there greater violence in Colombia and in Mexico?

The levels of violence associated with anti-drug policies are much lower in the United States than in Colombia and Mexico. In truth, empirical evidence shows that it isn't "natural" that when there exist high illegal profits people kill each other cruelly. Phrases like, "We front the bodies, and the gringos keep the profits" seem to illustrate that this is true. The question that both Colombians and Mexicans should answer is why illegal drugs have generated more violence in the two countries than in other countries in the narco-trafficking chain. Regardless of whether the US legalizes drugs or not, it is imperative to respond to this question to arrive at the roots of the violence.

Ideology as an obstacle

Lastly, history illustrates the importance of beliefs and moral, non-economic factors in the formulation of Prohibition-style policies in the United States. This goes against the common belief that what really matters in anti-drug policies is the high profitability generated by illegality.

Unfortunately, beliefs and values are important. If only the economic angle were relevant, it would be possible at least to try to negotiate in order to economically compensate those who lose out with a change in the laws. But when beliefs, values, and ideologies are important, they are non-negotiable, for which they become a grand obstacle to change.

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