Why Drugs Won’t Go Away: They’re Too Important

Manzanillo, Mexico

Listening to the radio here the other day, I encountered a journalist who has spent the last couple of years investigating the drug racket hereabouts. I had never heard of the guy before and can’t vouch for the accuracy of his information. He made some interesting points.

For starters, he calculates (how, I don’t know) that ten percent of Mexico’s gross national product comes from drugs. That’s huge. If he is correct, or even close, it follows that the Mexican government cannot afford to shut down the drug trade.

The usual view in the States is that the problem is bribery and corruption: If we could only get Mexican officials to be honest, the trade would die out. But, as the reporter pointed out, a government can’t shut down ten percent of its economy, especially in a country that doesn’t have much of an economy. In short, he said, drugs are a crucial, almost legitimate part of Mexico’s finances.

He pointed out that in lots of villages, all income derives from growing drugs. Farmers who could get 70 pesos a day by growing corn get 170 by growing marijuana and poppies. It lets them live decently, which matters if you are the one who hasn’t been. A government doesn’t want to re-consign its population to poverty. If it tried to, rebellion wouldn’t be inconceivable.

The guy didn’t say, but countless Latinos think, not unreasonably, that drugs are an American problem. If the gringos don’t want to use drugs, why do they buy them? The US is a rich country. People living in mud huts do not readily sympathize with our problems.

In the States, we talk about drugs, but do little. Why? Well, if you look at the Bill-Gatesian amounts of money involved, you easily conclude that enough people of importance are making out like bandits to make drugs a major part of our economy too. I don’t know just who gets it. Yet, a cynic might suspect, somebody is getting paid off. People have prices. Drug dealers have the wherewithal.

What would a serious attack on drugs require in the US? Most conspicuously, an assault on the black ghetto, where drugs are most obviously sold. This is politically impossible. It would also mean jailing large numbers of influential whites in the suburbs, who use lots of drugs, but not too obviously. It would also mean jailing their children, who use copiously in the high schools. These things also are politically impossible.

Legalization is fun to talk about, but it isn’t going to happen. Politicians on the take don’t want to see the cow dry up. Drugs are worth far more being illegal than legal. There is easily enough public hostility to drugs in the US to make legalization a dead letter. Those who profit from drugs have the resources to overcome any attempt at legalization.

The question becomes: Who really cares about drugs? The answer seems to be: Not much of anyone. Sure, parents don’t like drugs, but they don’t want the schools militarized, and heavy penalties actually applied might end up on the shoulders of their own kids. The effects of drugs on kids are bad, but most survive, and most lie to their parents anyway, so everyone thinks it’s someone else’s problem. Parents from the Sixties aren’t very horrified in the first place.

In my years on the police beat, it has seemed to me that the anti-drug effort has had a curiously pro-forma feel. We throw a lot of young blacks into prison on drug charges, largely I suspect because they’re easy to catch. If we wanted to catch white kids selling drugs, it would be easy, but I note we don’t much do it. The efforts we do make against drugs don’t make a dent in the problem. The effects of law-enforcement are easily measured by checking the availability and price of drugs on the street. They are cheap and easy to get. The war on drugs is a joke.

I conclude that the traffic has come to be an accepted part of the global economy. Nobody expects to stop it. Politicians around the world are involved. So, at least implicitly, are governments. Some nations depend on drugs for the well-being of their citizens. Parents don’t really care much. High-schools administrations look the other way. Disguised acceptance by everyone is the easiest course, involving none of the potentially disastrous costs of serious repression.

But drugs do provide work for cops, and for police reporters. Hey, we’re all in it together.

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