A panel in Houston debates the legalization of marijuana and other drugs
A panel in Houston debates the legalization of marijuana and other drugs

Drug smuggling gangs in Mexico have turned some parts of that country into a war zone. At the same time, arrests for drug offenses in the United States have soared, contributing to a jail population that is the highest in the industrialized world. Experts on the narcotics issue came together for a discussion of legalization and other ideas at the Baker Institute at Rice University in Houston Thursday.

The question before the panel was whether legalization of cannabis, commonly known as marijuana, would help reduce the power of the violent Mexican crime cartels. But the discussion also included the idea of legalizing other narcotics or changing the legal approach to the problem they pose.

Speaking in favor of legalization was Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance."I think the notion of taking certain psychoactive substances, certain plants and chemicals and treating those as criminal and treating anybody who touches them or uses them, consumes or sells or buys or grows them as criminal is basically wrong. It is wrong and especially for people whose only offense is to take those things into their body," he said.

Nadelmann argued that the so-called war on drugs being carried out by the US government is not really a war at all, but an ill-advised attempt to control behavior that has existed in human society for thousands of years. He says criminalization of drugs has put hundreds of thousands of otherwise lawful citizens in prison and provided criminal gangs with large profits.

But the Intelligence Chief for the Houston office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, Gary Hale said efforts to stop drug trafficking do amount to a war. "To me, it is a drug war. It is a conflict that is marked by death and, certainly, threats to our national security. A significant number of terrorist organizations partially fund their activities with drug proceeds," he said.

Hale noted that leftist guerrillas in Colombia are largely funded by taxes they impose on cocaine growers and that the Taliban in Afghanistan benefits from opium production there. 

Hale stressed that his job is to enforce the laws, not to make them, but he challenged the idea that legalization of marijuana or any other drug would have a great impact on Mexican criminal gangs like the Zetas, who operate along the US-Mexico border. "If you look at their revenue sources, which are drugs and prostitution and alcohol sales and petroleum theft and just a whole range of stuff the Zetas are involved in, drugs is a very small part, 15 to 20 percent," he said.

Hale said the measures taken by Mexican President Felipe Calderon since he took office in December, 2006 have disrupted many smuggling operations and prompted the cartels to diversify their revenue sources.

But Ethan Nadelmann argued that the main reason for legalization of marijuana in the United States would be to stop punishing behavior that poses little threat to public health or safety. "Nobody has ever died of a marijuana overdose, the likelihood of getting addicted to marijuana is less than with most other drugs, the consequences of that addiction are less serious than with other drugs and the ability to put that addiction behind you is often times easier than respect to other drugs. It does not have the association with violence or reckless sexual behavior that alcohol or other drugs do," he said.

But panelist Mark Kleiman, director of the Drug Policy Analysis Program at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggested there would be consequences associated with decriminalization that proponents like Nadelmann often ignore. "Were we to legalize cannabis on anything like the current alcohol model, we would be creating companies devoted to generating and sustaining addiction. Fifty percent of the alcohol consumed in the US is consumed by people who drink four or more drinks a day, year-round," he said.

Kleiman argues that laws aimed at controlling substance abuse could be effective using a different approach that falls between legalization and the current practice of putting offenders in prison. He advocates targeting flagrant markets-drug selling zones often found in big cities-- and programs that would only put drug users in jail if they failed to comply with treatment programs. Kleiman calls for grudging toleration of drug use with policies aimed at mitigating its consequences for consumers as well as society.