Editorial: It’s Time to End the War on Drugs

 by Garrett Okonek   


“We owned a tortilla factory for generations, but a few years ago drug related violence grew and families who owned businesses started receiving threats,” says APU sophomore Paula Cerda, who hails from a town on the southern tip of Texas, only a five-minute drive from Mexico, where her parents grew up. “This is typical of cartels; they threaten families with kidnappings and murder, and if these families do not turn in a percentage of their profits to cartels, those threats are carried out. My uncle, father, and aunt decided that they would not succumb to the threats of inglorious criminals and took matters into their own hands. They closed down the shop that had been built by my grandfather’s family; they sold their family ranch because it was near another ranch where decapitated bodies had been found.”

From this perspective, the United Sates’ war on drugs makes less and less sense. “Drug users in America will continue using regardless of where the drugs come from,” Cerda says, “except that when they buy drugs that have been smuggled across the border they are doing it at the expense of innocent lives and the integrity of another country” (P. Cerda, personal communication, December 9, 2012).

Started in 1971 by President Nixon, the war on drugs has lasted more than 40 years, has cost the nation billions of dollars every year, and has resulted in the deaths of more than 13,000 people in 2011 alone (Campos, 2012). The lackluster results of this effort do not merit its immense monetary cost and the immeasurable toll it has taken on the millions of people it has affected over the years. This war should be put to a stop, and the only real way to deal with the nation’s drug problem is to completely legalize all drugs currently prohibited. Doing this would severely decrease the profits being made by Mexican and Central American drug cartels, benefit the country financially, and lead to safer lives for people worldwide. The benefits of legalization far outweigh those achieved through prohibition.

History has shown that prohibition creates black markets, and black markets lead to easy incomes for gangs. The huge amounts of money that gangs bring in from black market drugs make it easy for them to escape prosecution and corrupt law enforcement agencies with immense bribes. This makes gangs even more powerful, and such a situation can quickly get out of control. An example of this could be seen when the US criminalized the sale of alcohol in the early 20th century with the passing of the 18th Amendment. When alcohol became illegal, it caused a huge increase in organized crime and gang violence. The homicide rate increased to 10 deaths per 100,000 people during the 1920s, a 78 percent increase over the pre-Prohibition period. In 30 major U.S. cities, the number of crimes increased 24 percent between 1920 and 1921. Between 1914 and 1930, the prison population rose from 4,000 to nearly to nearly 30,000, and more than half of the prisoners resulted from Prohibition laws (Thornton, 1991).  It got so out of control that the law was reversed by the 21st Amendment in 1933, a mere a fourteen years later.

The best modern example of this phenomenon is the rise of drug cartels in Mexico. Many gangs engage in very violent behavior. In order to eliminate those who oppose them and instill fear in those who would think to do so, cartels tend to murder their victims in horrific ways. They behead people and hang them from bridges in public places, shoot innocent people in the streets, and do all of this facing few repercussions. Strategic Comments, a world-leading authority on global security, political risk and military conflict, notes:

Cartels use their profits to subvert governments and law-enforcement organisations, sometimes achieving a symbiotic relationship, which allows them to pursue their activities largely unobstructed. When such relationships break down, as happened in Colombia in the 1980s with the drug lord Pablo Escobar or more recently in Mexico, cartels typically respond with extreme violence that can challenge the very survival of the state. (Nicoll, A.; Delaney, J., 2012)

Since 2007, there have been at least 35,000 people killed because of gang-related violence (Campos, 2012). The cartels are also becoming stronger everyday, and their strength is frightening. The Mexican government has roughly 85,000 soldiers and federal police, but there are more than 100,000 cartel “foot soldiers” (Campos, 2012). Granted, these gangs aren’t unified (yet), but considering how well armed they are, it’s still a very bad situation. The worst part of all this death is that the United States is funding it.

In 2009, drug cartels took in over $50 billion from their sales to users in the United States alone, Mexico’s public safety secretary has said (Campos, 2012). The United States has mostly been ignoring the terror that is happening right at their doorstep, but the horrific gang violence and police corruption that is so common in Mexico is slowly spilling into this country. Though the United States hasn’t experienced the rampant violence of Mexico, the presence of cartels in the country is growing. Nearly 75% of cartel profits are from drugs, and legalization would strike a major blow to the power these cartels are gaining. The US must respond to this situation more proactively unless it wants a failed state on their southern border, and legalization would be the best way to diminish the profits (and power) of the cartels.

Legalizing drugs would not only reduce the income of gangs, but would put that money into the US economy. The nation has spent over a trillion dollars on the War on Drugs, and continues to spend over a billion per year (Campos, 2012). And while the goal of the Drug War is to make drugs harder and more expensive to purchase, the 2007 price of pure cocaine was substantially lower than it was in 1990 (Scherlen, 2012). If they were legal, drugs could be taxed just as alcohol and cigarettes are now.  It’s estimated that legalization would reduce government expenditure by about $41.3 billion annually, and generate $46.7 billion in tax revenues per year (Miron and Waldoc, 2010). Legalization would put an end to an ineffective and costly process, and help stimulate the economy.

Besides helping the country financially, legalization would actually reduce drug use, while making the process safer for drug users. Isaac Campos, an assistant professor at McMicken University, explains the relationship between drug demonization and drug use like this:

Yet by demonizing certain substances as especially dangerous and pernicious, we not only make those drugs especially attractive to certain users, but also convince them that they should experience some of the terrible effects we are warning them about. In other words, we foster the production of such effects. As DeGrandpre puts it, our widespread belief in certain outcomes creates a kind of “placebo text,” a cultural script that comes to function like a self-fulfilling prophecy When you convince people that certain drugs are especially attractive or addictive, those drugs become that much more attractive and addictive. (Campos, 2012)

If the US stopped spending billions of dollars a year on the failed Drug War, it would be able to concentrate more on prevention and treatment. Right now, US prisons are mostly filled with drug offenders. The US has 3 million prisoners, 80% of which are jailed for drug-related offenses (Bewley-Taylor, et al., 2009). In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drug use in an effort to address widespread drug use. According to Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional lawyer and contributor to the Cato Institute, “The data show that, judged by virtually every metric, the Portuguese decriminalization framework has been a resounding success.” (Greenwald, 2009) Fines for drug-related crimes are now minimal, and instead of jailing repeat offenders, Portugal sends them to addiction therapy. After only five years of the new laws,  illegal drug use by teenagers had declined, the rate of HIV infections among drug users had dropped, deaths related to heroin and similar drugs had been cut by more than half, and the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction had doubled (Greenwald, 2009). Legalization would get those people with serious drug addictions (a medical condition) out of prison and into rehabilitation clinics.

Ultimately, as the biggest customer of the drug cartels, the US has a moral responsibility to put a stop to the horror that they are funding, and legalization is the only sure way to do that. Legalization would help end the bloodshed on our border, benefit the US financially, and make drug use a safer, more sensible process. It’s time for the failed Drug War to end, and for legalization to become a reality.




Bewley-Taylor, D.; Hallam, C.; Allen, R. (2009) The incarceration of drug offenders: An             Overview. The Beckley Foundation, drug policy programme, Report 16.


Campos, Isaac. (2012) In Search of Real Reform: Lessons From Mexico’s Long History             of             Drug Prohibition. NACLA Report on the Americas.


Cerda, Paula. (December 9, 2012, personal communication)


Greenwald, G. (2009) Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and             Successful Drug Policies, Glenn Greenwald. Cato Institute


Miron, Jeffrey A.; Waldock. (2010) Making an Economic Case for Legalizing Drugs. Cato             Institute


Nicoll, A.; Delaney, J. (2012) Violence fuels debate on drugs legalisation, Strategic             Comments, 18:3, 1-3


Scherlen, Renee. (2012) The Never-Ending Drug War: Obstacles to Drug War Policy             Termination. Appalachian State University.


Thornton, Mark. (1991) Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 157: Alcohol Prohibition Was             a Failure. Cato Institute.


  • Nuralisa T. Adil

    Yes. I agree. We should stop the war about drugs. Because it depends on people how they will change if they are using drugs or illegal drugs. We should stop using illegal drugs because it will not help us in order to us to become a better person but in using illegal drugs it will make us more misserable person and it will be harm for us if we will use it. There are still time to become a good person by avoiding illegal drugs and avoid also the bad influence by our friends or anyone that is using illegal drugs. We live on this earth to do good things not to do bad things. So, if you are willing to be a good person you can do it and have a strong feelings and determination to become a better person.

  • Renee

    Great job on this paper! You had solid research and I never considered your point of view on the cartels, it’s very compelling. I completely agree that the war on drugs has had the opposite result that was intended. I just finished writing a paper on prison reform which mirrored many of your ideas. I think your proposal was strong, especially on the financial end-our government is dumping money into a broken system. How scary for the Latino culture, I had no idea, I am grateful to have a deeper perspective on how people are effected by this issue.

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