End the War on Drugs Now

After a half a century of failure, the U.S. and Mexico have an opportunity to find a new way forward on narcotics policy.

By Ioan Grillo

Nov. 20, 2020

President Richard Nixon announcing a “new all-out offensive” against illicit drugs in 1971. The reverberations echo today.
President Richard Nixon announcing a “new all-out offensive” against illicit drugs in 1971. The reverberations echo today.Credit…Harvey Georges/Associated Press

MEXICO CITY — On June 17, 1971, President Richard Nixon stood in front of the White House press corps and made his historic declaration of a new type of war. “Public Enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse,” he said. “In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it’s necessary to wage a new all-out offensive.”

It would be a governmentwide effort, and rally the United States’s power abroad to stem the supply of drugs. Among the countries targeted was Mexico, which was home to abundant marijuana production and had been resistant to aerial crop spraying.

Nearly 50 years later, the war on drugs has left a trail of destruction. Almost 72,000 Americans died as a result of drug overdoses last year. People of color have been disproportionally hurt by mass incarceration for drug offenses, devastating families and communities. And law enforcement efforts against drug crimes are behind many police killings, including that of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., in March.

Here in Mexico, I have spent the last decade and a half covering what more closely resembles a real war. Much of the nation’s armed forces have mobilized against drug cartels since late 2006. In the 14 years since then, Mexico has suffered more than 270,000 homicides, many at the hands of cartel gunmen or the security forces fighting them.

And to rub salt in the wounds, some of the very security officials leading this war in Mexico are accused of working with the cartels. The country’s former public security secretary, Genaro García Luna, is in a New York jail facing drug-trafficking charges. A former secretary of defense, Salvador Cienfuegos, is also accused of working with traffickers; he was indicted in New York but on Wednesday prosecutors agreed to drop the charges and transfer him to Mexico, where the government says the inquiry will continue. But many here wonder if justice really extends to the powerful in this war.

Yet along with this record of failure, there is an opportunity to forge a new path on drug policy on both sides of the Rio Grande. In this month’s American elections, Oregon voted to become the first state to decriminalize small amounts of hard drugs, including heroin, cocaine and crystal meth. Those caught in possession will have the option of paying a $100 fine, or undergoing treatment.

What’s more, New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and Arizona joined 11 other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing recreational marijuana. It’s notable these policies are supported across the partisan divide, with 74 percent of Mississippi voters backing legal medical marijuana.

And Mexico is poised to create the most populous legal marijuana zone. Following a Mexican Supreme Court ruling in 2019 that cannabis prohibition is unconstitutional, the Senate is working on a December deadline to pass a legalization law. The bill would allow people to possess up to 28 grams (a little under an ounce) and cultivate up to four plants.

The leaders of both countries should follow those examples. President-elect Joe Biden has promised justice reform but it is unclear what concrete measures he will take. A focus on reforming drug policy could give him some direction.

After Nixon declared his war on drugs, he talked in absolutist terms of stopping any drugs being available. “Our goal is the total banishment of drug abuse from the American life,” he said in his address to the International Conference on Narcotics Control during his 1972 re-election campaign. The offensive was stepped up by his successors in the 1980s and 1990s in cities like Miami and Los Angeles, and countries like Colombia.

The ballot measures and surveys show that Americans are now ready to end the war on drugs. A Biden government could move from the fantasy of ridding the world of narcotics to a realistic policy of harm reduction. It could then shift resources from enforcement to treatment, which is in dire need of improvement. A 2019 study by the American Medical Association found that an incredible 90 percent of people with substance abuse disorders were not receiving the help they need.

Rehabilitation could cut the amount of cash flowing to cartels in Mexico, which they use to hire killers and bribe officials. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power calling for an end to the war that has ravaged his country. But amid sky-high homicide rates, he has kept the army on the streets, and lacks a coherent security strategy. He would do well to embrace the marijuana legalization and work with the United States in eventually creating a legal market for cannabis across the whole region.

If struggling farmers in Mexico’s mountains could grow marijuana legally for the United States or domestic markets it could draw them away from the organized crime networks. President López Obrador could redirect police efforts toward more pernicious crimes — murder, kidnapping and extortion.

Drug policy reform involves a gradual shift in rhetoric, laws and practices. It doesn’t necessarily mean legalizing all drugs, but focusing on harm reduction and treatment, while seeing where profitable legal markets can be created.

It also isn’t a magic bullet that will stop all crime. Police officers on both sides of the border are still needed to fight violent offenses. Mexico’s cartels have diversified into a portfolio of crimes from sex trafficking to oil theft, and law enforcement is urgently needed to combat those crimes. But if the gangsters had their drug profits slashed, their power and scope could be greatly reduced.

When Nixon declared his war, really widespread drug use in the United States was still relatively new. He probably truly believed he could shut it down through enforcement. Half a century on, we know that this style of prohibition fails to curb drug use and has given rise to a black market that fuels violence.

It would be a momentous moment if on the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s declaration, another United States president told the world that the war was truly over.

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