When we think about wars happening in the world right now, Iraq and Afghanistan jump to mind. But there is war in our backyard that can match the violence anywhere in the world, and that is the Drug War in Mexico.
Mexico President Felipe Calderon launched a full-scale military assault against the drug traffickers in his country as soon as he took office in December 2006. Three years later, the "surge" against the cartels has led to Mexico spinning out of control with jaw-dropping violence -- with no meaningful impact on the export and availability of drugs. More than twice the number of Mexicans have died in these three years -- 15,000 -- than have Americans in both Iraq and Afghanistan combined after more than seven years.
In the past three days, the insanity has made front page news, as it often does. The New York Times published a piece about the "death of journalism," about how cartels have threatened and killed so many reporters in Mexico that the press is too terrified to cover the drug war. Today there is another front page New York Times piece about the two U.S. consulate officials who were gunned down over the weekend, the highest ranking Americans to be murdered to date. And this weekend we also heard about the 24 people murdered, including several beheadings, in the spring break hot spot of Acapulco.
While the mayhem has been covered in tens of thousands of news stories around the world, rarely is the root of the problem explained: drug prohibition. Remember alcohol prohibition, Chicago under Al Capone, shoot-outs in broad daylight? That's what we have in Mexico, a thousand times over.
There is nothing inherently evil or violent about marijuana and coca, but prohibiting these plants makes them worth more than gold. And people are willing to kill each for the enormous profits to be made by bringing them to market. Now that alcohol is legal, no one is murdered over a case of Budweiser.
The best next-step we have towards reducing the violence in Mexico is ending marijuana prohibition. The Drug Enforcement Agency estimates that 60% of the cartels profits come from marijuana, a plant that more than one-half of Americans have consumed at some point in their lives. Regulating the multi-billion dollar marijuana market would significantly diminish the power of the cartels.
But don't expect our elected officials and other leadership to make this happen any time soon. With the exception of a brave few, most in Washington are too politically timid to even have a debate about the root problem.
Fortunately, there's a history of citizens taking the lead on de-escalating the drug war at home, most prominently in California where they approved measures at the ballot to create access to medical marijuana in 1996, and a treatment-instead-of-incarceration program for nonviolent drug users in 2000. This November, the people of California will once again have an opportunity to vote on an anti-drug war ballot initiative, this time to tax and regulate marijuana in the state.
If it passes, it could prove to be a pivotal first step towards ending marijuana prohibition in the U.S. -- and the violence in Mexico. As we've learned these past three years, more guns, tanks, and bombs in Mexico are not the answer. It's time for an exit strategy from the failed war on marijuana. If the people lead, the leaders will follow.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)