Pubdate: Fri, 20 Nov 2020
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2020 The New York Times Company
Author: Ioan Grillo


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 government-wide 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 Garcia 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

Rehabilitation could cut the amount of cash flowing to cartels in
Mexico, which they use to hire killers and bribe officials. President
Andres Manuel Lopez 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 Lopez 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.

Ioan Grillo is the author of the forthcoming book "Blood Gun Money: How 
America Arms Gangs and Cartels" and a contributing opinion writer.
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