The sense that Mexico may lose its battle with the drug cartels has ignited a discussion of drug policy in the United States.
I have mixed emotions about this.
I have long believed that making the use of recreational drugs a criminal offense was wrongheaded on philosophical grounds.
The United States should be a country dedicated, in part, to the protection of individual liberty. Such a society should be highly circumspect about the behaviors it deems criminal and thus worthy of depriving those who engage in them of their liberty.
The use of recreational drugs should not be such a behavior. Instead, it should be treated as a matter of personal responsibility and personal and public health.
The United States does not treat it as such. But, increasingly, the country treats drug use less and less as a criminal matter as well.
Few people are actually incarcerated for just drug usage. Diversion into treatment has become the norm.
This has rendered U.S. drug policy incoherent and arbitrary. Drug use remains a crime. Enforcement, however, is spotty and inconsistent.
That has left a large demand for recreational drugs that can be supplied only through criminal enterprises. That hugely inflates prices and profits.
Mexican President Felipé Calderon has mobilized national forces to try to break the grip of the cartels on governance in some areas. The result has been an outbreak of violence with uncertain prospects for success.
Criminal drug organizations have long been a source of instability in Latin America. Some fear that Mexico can become a failed state. And that has some people unmoved by the philosophical argument wondering whether the United States needs to legalize at least marijuana to reduce the pressure on Mexico.
The U.S. has choices.
Contrary to the position taken by most legalization advocates, I believe prohibition could work. Sweden has tough law against recreational drug use and aggressively enforces them. It has a much lower usage rate than in other European countries.
But the short-term cost of aggressive enforcement would be enormous. Over a quarter of young American adults 18-25 report having used marijuana in the last year. And over 6 percent report having used cocaine.
The hypocrisy would be pretty rank. In my generation, former recreational drug users who are now successful because they avoided the enforcement lottery are the rule not the exception. We have a president who has acknowledged using both marijuana and cocaine.
The U.S. prospered in the 20th century with a Latin America that, for most of that period, was unstable and economically dysfunctional. A policy of trying to contain the effects of the Latin American drug wars on the U.S. could probably muddle through.
The question is: What’s the point? At this juncture, U.S. drug policy is mostly about maintaining the fiction that the country is doing something about young adults using recreational drugs.
Education has moderated usage. Diversion does work for some.
But the U.S. demand for recreational drugs remains large and short of criminally cracking down on users, it will remain so. Suppression activities in Latin America have not materially reduced supply.
The United States should legalize and tightly regulate recreational drugs because that is the policy most compatible with the principle of protecting individual liberty, and dealing with drug use as a matter of personal responsibility and personal and public health.
The breathing space it would give the countries in Latin America, and particularly Mexico, to develop their own civil societies under the rule of law is not a reason to do so. But it would be a substantial additional benefit.
Robert Robb is an Arizona Republic columnist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org