Pubdate: Mon, 30 Mar 2009
Source: Statesman Journal (Salem, OR)
Copyright: 2009 The Washington Post Writers Group
Author: Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post


WASHINGTON -- It's an indictment of our fact-averse political culture 
that a statement of the blindingly obvious could sound so 
revolutionary. Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug 
trade," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters on her 
plane Wednesday as she flew to Mexico for an official visit. "Our 
inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the 
border ... causes the deaths of police, of soldiers and civilians."

Amazingly, U.S. officials have avoided facing these facts for 
decades. This is not just an intellectual blind spot but a moral 
failure, one that has had horrific consequences for Mexico, Colombia, 
Peru, Bolivia and other Latin American and Caribbean nations.

Clinton deserves high praise for acknowledging that the United States 
bears "shared responsibility" for the drug-fueled violence sweeping 
Mexico, which has claimed more than 7,000 lives since the beginning 
of 2008. But that means we will also share responsibility for the 
next 7,000 killings as well. Our long-running "war on drugs," 
focusing on the supply side of the equation, has been an utter 
disaster. Domestically, we've locked up hundreds of thousands of 
street-level dealers, some of whom genuinely deserve to be in prison 
and some of whom don't. It made no difference. According to a 2007 
University of Michigan study, 84 percent of high school seniors 
nationwide said they could obtain marijuana "fairly easily" or "very 
easily." The figure for amphetamines was 50 percent; for cocaine, 47 
percent; for heroin, 30 percent.

At the same time, we've persisted in a Sisyphean attempt to cut off 
the drug supply at or near the source.

When I was The Washington Post's correspondent in South America, I 
once took a nerve-racking helicopter ride to visit a U.S.-funded 
military base in the Upper Huallaga Valley of Peru. It was the place 
where most of the country's coca -- the plant from which cocaine is 
processed -- was being grown, and the valley was crawling with Maoist 
guerrillas who funded their insurgency with money they extorted from 
the coca growers and traffickers. Eventually, the coca business was 
eliminated in the Upper Huallaga. But now it's flourishing in other 
parts of Peru, and last year authorities there seized a record 30 
tons of cocaine -- meaning, by rule of thumb, that at least 10 times 
that much was probably produced and shipped.

In Colombia, I saw how the huge, brutally violent Medellin and Cali 
cocaine cartels threatened to turn the country into the world's first 
"narco-state." The Colombian government, again with U.S. assistance, 
managed to pulverize these sprawling criminal organizations into 
smaller units, but the business continues to thrive -- and to provide 
most of the cocaine that finds its way to the American market.

Last year, Colombian authorities seized 119 tons of cocaine.

Money from the drug trade sustains the longest-running leftist 
insurgency in the hemisphere. Ever inventive, the Colombian 
traffickers have gone so far as to build their own miniature 
submarines to smuggle illicit cargo into the United States. And now 
Mexico has become the focal point of the drug trade, with its cartels 
blasting their way to dominance in the business of bringing 
marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine and other drugs to the American 
market. Violence among drug gangs, not just along the border but 
throughout the country, has reached crisis levels.

The government's strategy is to break up the big cartels, as the 
Colombians did. But even if authorities succeed, the industry will 
live on. In the case of Mexico, there's a complicating factor: This 
is a two-way problem. While drugs are being moved north across the 
border, powerful assault weapons -- purchased in the United States -- 
are being moved south to arm the cartels' foot soldiers.

Clinton's statement about "shared responsibility" recognizes that if 
we expect Mexico to do something about the flow of drugs, we're 
obliged to do something about the counterflow of guns. First, though, 
let's be honest with ourselves. This whole disruptive, destabilizing 
enterprise has one purpose, which is to supply the U.S. market with 
illegal drugs.

As long as the demand exists, entrepreneurs will find a way to meet 
it. The obvious demand-side solution -- legalization -- would do more 
harm than good with some drugs, but maybe not with others.

We need to examine all options. It's time to put everything on the 
table, because all we've accomplished so far is to bring the terrible 
violence of the drug trade ever closer to home. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake