Op-Eds Urging People to Stop Taking Drugs Won’t Solve Mexico’s Cartel Problem

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Consider, if you will, this passage narrating the production of a certain plant in Latin America:

“Conditions on Latin American plantations have long undermined workers’ health through long hours and daily contact with pesticides and fertilizers… Each worker produces approximately $20,000 worth of [product] annually but often earns only $2,000 for his or her labor. Workers frequently labor between 10 and 12 hours, six to seven days a week, and while 30 percent of these plantation workers are permanent, the remainder are employed on 90-day contracts… Workers never enjoy benefits such as vacation time or social security, and most are only able to eke out a meager existence; a typical company barracks, shared by four workers, is a 2.3 by 3.3 meter room. Due to the miserable living conditions and sense of despair among laborers, substance abuse, violence, illness, sexual abuse, discrimination, and broken families are all too common.”

This isn’t a cocaine plantation, if that was your first thought. It’s a banana plantation. I’m citing the above because of a piece that ran in the New York Times‘ opinion section earlier this week. The piece, entitled “Want to Make Ethical Purchases? Stop Buying Illegal Drugs,” is by Mexican writer Mario Berlanga, and narrates growing up in the shadow of the country’s notorious drug cartels:

“To protect their huge profits, [cartels] kill competitors, journalists, policemen and innocents. My friend Maria, mother of a 14-year-old son, temporarily fled her low-income neighborhood in the city of Monterrey with her family when she realized a cartel was forcing boys to join the business. Two nights after their return, armed men entered her house and killed her son in front of her in retaliation.”

Americans, Berlanga argues, have a moral obligation to stop buying illegal drugs, because those purchases play directly into the ability of cartels to murder and terrorize: “If you think one person’s consumption is too small to make a difference, consider that $100 — what a recreational cocaine user might spend on a single weekend — buys the cartels 500 rounds of ammunition; $500 buys a new AR-15 rifle; $700 covers the monthly salary of one of their gunmen.”

This is all true, but it’s only half the story — and it’s important to tell the other half of the story, because ever since the first law was passed to proscribe drug use, the burden of guilt for pretty much anything remotely drug-related has been placed squarely upon the user, as if the desire to at all alter one’s state of consciousness was so intrinsically terrible as to deserve only condemnation and criminalization.

To be clear: I’m not defending cocaine use here. But there’s nothing inherently evil about the substance, or at least no more so than any other drug — it’s bad for your heart, but so is tobacco. It turns you into a solipsistic asshole at parties, but so does alcohol. And so on.

As Berlanga notes, the reason that cocaine’s production is so stained with blood is that it’s controlled by cartels. But why is it controlled by cartels? Because it’s illegal. Berlanga is correct that the consumption of illegal drugs contributes directly to the carnage created by their production. But if we’re going to talk about illegal drugs, we need to consider the question of their legality — because ultimately, it’s their illegality that has created the ongoing disaster in Mexico. If we’re going to investigate the circumstances behind the production of the little bag of powder that you snort surreptitiously in the bathroom, then stopping at how it’s produced, without considering why it’s produced that way, is failing to see the forest for the trees.

Clearly, as things stand at the moment, it’s impossible to make an ethical purchase of cocaine. But in this world of globalized supply chains and global capitalism, there are many items that it’s virtually impossible to purchase ethically. Think of the clothes you’re wearing — were they produced a Bangladeshi sweatshop like the one that collapsed in 2013? There’s been plenty written about the conditions in which smartphones are produced — not just iPhones, by the way, so you can wipe that grin off your face if you’re glancing smugly at your Galaxy Note right now.

There are some cases in which you have the choice — you can buy your lettuce from the farmer’s market instead of the supermarket, and eat it while basking in the knowledge that you’re eating something that supports local farmers who don’t exploit their workers or the environment — unless, of course, they do. You can buy Fairtrade coffee and hope that the little logo on the packet really does mean that you’re not buying into systematic oppression and exploitation. But there are plenty of other circumstances where it’s almost impossible to be the good guy. Can you buy an ethical smartphone? (Almost certainly not.) An ethical $10 t-shirt? An ethical banana?

Whether the answer is “yes” or “no,” most people would accept that placing the burden of ethical production on the consumer isn’t exactly the most efficient — or, indeed, the most ethical — way of improving the quality of life of those producing the goods in question. The “think global, act local” philosophy is fine so long as it’s part of a wider strategy of reform, but in many cases, it’s become a way for those with the actual power to effect change to abrogate their responsibility for doing so. Consumers are encouraged to save power, for example, by turning ACs and lights off when not in use, because that wasted power contribute to the production of greenhouse gases — but equally, your average homeowner can be forgiven for questioning the point of this when every single giant office building in the city leaves its lights on all night. Similarly, eschewing a weekend cocaine purchase isn’t going to do much good if, as reported by Mexican daily El Universal a couple of years back, the DEA has been dealing with the Sinaloa Cartel for years, allowing it to import drugs into the US in exchange for information on other cartels. (There’s an English-language summary of that report here.)

The ultimate responsibility for reforming supply chains — whether it’s supply of cocaine or supply of dirt-cheap t-shirts — doesn’t fall on the consumer. It falls on politicians, CEOs, shareholders, etc — the people who have the actual power to effect reform. In some cases, legislators have limited power to do so: US labor law — stop sniggering at the back, there — cannot extend to other countries, which is the reason for the fondness of Apple, Samsung, Del Monte, and other big producers of America’s favorite consumer items for operating in those countries. As such, the ability of US lawmakers to curb abuses in overseas supply chains is limited (although this is largely a hypothetical question given that America’s regulatory response to such matters can be best summarized as ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.)

It is within the power of American legislators, however, to curb the power of the Mexican cartels responsible for the hideous crimes we read about every day. Doing so requires only one policy, in fact. That policy is, of course, legalizing drugs. Instead of pursuing the endless and hopeless War on Drugs, which is right up there with the War on Terror and the Vietnam War as far as futile and disastrous American wars go, legalize drugs. Tax them. Regulate them. Make their producers accountable to the government and to the public.

American companies have, as discussed above, gotten away with — and continue to get away with — some pretty terrible shit in their production of the goods that America consumes so avidly, but they have at least some fear of bad PR, and their worst abuses can’t rival those perpetrated by the Mexican cartels that currently control a large quantity of the drugs coming into America. Cartels don’t care what you think of them — they’re drug cartels! The more comically evil they are, the better, because it means that everyone is terrified of them! And the way to hurt them isn’t through a War on Drugs; in fact, it’s the exact opposite.

The relaxation of laws on marijuana shows that allowing a drug to go above ground can deprive cartels of a major sources of income, and you can rest assured that the weed you smoke, if you’re partial to a toke, is produced in significantly more humane circumstances in northern California than it was in Baja California. (Lest you think that this is a feelgood story, the cartels responded by diversifying into heroin and fentanyl, proving that so long as there are illicit drugs to produce, El Chapo et al aren’t going anywhere.)

As Berlanga notes, drug use is not, as things stand at the moment, a victimless crime. But this is only the case because it’s a crime in the first place. And it’s only a crime because of ill-conceived policy that has zero basis in science, statistics or common sense — because all three of those things tell us that drug use should be legal.

None of this is to say, of course, that you shouldn’t have a long hard think about where your drugs come from before you decide to purchase them. But the last 30 years have proven pretty comprehensively that Americans’ appetite for cocaine and other drugs is not going to be abated by being told sternly that drugs are bad. And as long as production of those drugs is left in the hands of criminals, the drugs will remain stained with the blood of innocents. Instead of advocating a demonstrably futile “Just say no” stance, the New York Times would be better served by offering a platform to those advocating for sane drug policy — policy that’s aimed at harm minimization, both for drug users and equally importantly, for the people involved in the production of the drugs in question.