Decriminalizing drugs could stop the violence on the border


It sure didn't seem like the kind of place where bloodied drug smugglers stumble out of the scrub after shootouts. But it was.

On a recent road trip to Mexico, my family and I stopped for the night at some friends' house near Tubac, Ariz., between Tucson and the border. Our friends' backyard stretches into a national forest, where ocotillo and mesquite and cacti grow in the shadows of rugged crags.

It is also a major drug-trafficking route. Smugglers move on foot between the houses and cliffs in order to bypass a border patrol checkpoint. For the most part, the narco trail is not visible to residents, though occasionally, machine gun fire echoes off the cliffs, and the cactus forest turns into a war zone.

About a year ago, a Border Patrol officer near here shot and killed a drug smuggler. A month earlier, some bandits opened fire on nine drug runners, killing two and wounding two others. The survivors, soaked in blood, ran to the neighbors' house for help.

That's just a faint echo of what's happening south of the border. Ten people were killed in a rolling shootout in Nogales this fall. South of there, a paramilitary convoy of criminals invaded the town of Cananea. Things are even more grisly along the Texas border. During recent weeks, these headlines appeared in Juarez news outlets: Five motorcyclists slain in front of seafood restaurant; 11 slain in Juarez in 20 hours; Three severed heads found in ice chest. All in all, at least 5,000 people have died in the violence accompanying the illegal drug trade over the past year.

Desperate for a solution, the El Paso city council tried to pass am resolution that would -- among other things -- begin the discussion of decriminalizing drugs. The resolution passed unanimously, but the mayor vetoed it, ending discussion. That's unfortunate, because it's a conversation that all of us -- not just those living near the border -- need to have.

On a large scale, there are plenty of reasons to decriminalize all or some drug use, production and trafficking. For starters, it's hypocritical to incarcerate someone for smoking a joint, for example, when it is legal to buy and use other drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco. The war on drugs has also made for a crooked dynamic in U.S. foreign relations: Our government supports governments -- primarily in Latin America -- solely because of their efforts to eradicate drug production, without taking account of their often dismal records on human rights.

Then there's the fiscal lack of accountability: Billions are spent trying to catch drug users and peddlers, and billions more to incarcerate them, yet it has done nothing to curb drug use. Instead, it's only raised the stakes,enticing organized crime rackets to get into the drug business and making it more prone to brutal violence.

In the case of Mexico and the border region, decriminalizing drugs would at the very least allow law enforcement to shift their priorities. Rather than chasing drug-runners through the desert, they could focus their attention on the people at the top – the ones who order the mass murders and dismemberment. Because they wouldn't have to worry about being locked up for simply conducting their business, drug traffickers would have less incentive to bribe and corrupt -- let alone murder -- local police officers. (After all, tequila -- a drug -- moves legally from Mexico to the U.S., but who's ever heard of tequila wars?)

Though most of the violence has occurred south of the border, those of us up north have a lot at stake, too. The violence has created more pressure for Mexicans to flee to the United States. Meanwhile, tourism in Mexico, especially northern Mexico, has dropped considerably because Americans are afraid of being caught in the crossfire or kidnapped. That further damages an already decrepit Mexican economy, which pressures more people to move north.

Combine all of this with the global recession that has severely curtailed the amount of money immigrants in the United States can send back home, and the result is an unsustainable, volatile situation in our next-door neighbor. Of course, that affects us here because the U.S. and Mexican economies and cultures are so closely linked. Just consider where that cucumber in your salad came from.

Decriminalization is far from a perfect solution; chances are it would facilitate the flow of drugs across the border, which could increase drug use over here. Still, I'd rather see a few more heads cloudy from smoking dope than showing up in somebody's freezer.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He edits the magazine in Paonia, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Thank you!
Aria Stewart
Aria Stewart
Feb 20, 2009 09:41 AM
Thank you for saying it. This drug war is costing us a lot -- time, money that could be spent helping people, and it's helping shape policy that's destroying families on the immigration front.
decriminalizing drugs
Karen Renne
Karen Renne
Feb 20, 2009 10:54 AM
Right on! Having refused to learn from the history of Prohibition in this country, our politicians are leading us down the same road again. Legitimizing--or decriminalizing--all drugs would remove the financial incentives for drug wars, free up space in our prisons for violent offenders, and make it possible to treat addicted users. The financial benefits probably would equal those of the "stimulus!"
legalizing drugs
Mike Mc Garry
Mike Mc Garry
Feb 22, 2009 02:42 PM
Legalizing pot is an easy one. No argument. Hell, we can and do grow it at home in volume, all without having to contribute to the horrific violence going on in Mexico that is oozing across the border. Also, keep in mind, there has been a long, mostly nonviolent history of pot coming into country.

However, the violence perped by the cartels is grounded in the smuggleing of cocaine, meth (and its precursors), illegal aliens, women/children sex slaves etc.

Are you suggesting we legalize each of these? If so, you are way too stoned to be considered rartional.

Get friggin' real!
absolutely ridiculous
Chris Jacoby
Chris Jacoby
Feb 23, 2009 11:09 AM
I normally don't argue with someone's opinion but Mr. Thompson you obviously have no experience in this area at all. Mexican cartels are waging the largest war in history for control of the drug trade. We all know's profitable. THEY DON'T CARE ABOUT LAWS Mr. Thompson and will conduct business as they see fit, regardless of what our laws say or do. California unfortunately legalized some marijuana years ago and you know what...The cartels keep coming back to plant more and more each year. Home invasion drug rip offs are increasing, and so are driving under the influence of Marijuana arrests.
Mr. Jacoby obviously knows nothing about what he's talking about here!
TR Bundy
TR Bundy
Feb 23, 2009 03:18 PM
By decriminalizing or legalizing you remove the reason for the high costs of these products. Our government can control distribution and tax the use of drugs which continue to be consumed in this country despite our throwing of over thirty billion dollars down the enforcement rathole every year. In fact if the government were serious about stopping the flow of drugs they would go to the source and buy every bit of the production then destroy it on the spot. That could be done for less than half what we waste now on our failed enforcement policy. With government controlling and taxing distribution the costs of acquiring the drug products will be recouped, children can be kept away from the drugs and we will see the Cartels have to take up another line of work. Overnight there will no longer be any profit for the cartels in the drug trade. California legalized medical marijuana use, but the "Drug Czar" and DEA have gone right ahead arresting and jailing sick people. The Mexican Cartels are not the growers in our national forest lands, they have vast fields in the mountains and plains all over Mexico. The US growers are US citizens who want to stop any and all trade with the monsters who control production and distribution south of the border under our failed drug policy, according to letters to the editor from US growers I have read.
Mr. Jacoby, if you would like to learn about what you now obviously lack any real knowledge, just google -law enforcement personel opposed to current drug policy. You will learn just how mistaken and ill informed you are and that it is your arguments that are absolutely ridiculous!
Growers in US
Feb 24, 2009 11:12 AM
This comment is just to address the following point raised above by TR Bundy:

"The Mexican Cartels are not the growers in our national forest lands, they have vast fields in the mountains and plains all over Mexico."

Interestingly, a recent NYTimes article suggests that the drug cartels are in fact starting to plant locally to avoid the risks of smuggling across the border ( That fact doesn't change the thrust of Bundy's argument, but I thought I would point it out.
Mr. Bundy must be high!
Chris Jacoby
Chris Jacoby
Feb 25, 2009 03:13 AM
Mr. Bundy I am glad you live in such a sheltered area of the country that your beliefs seem reasonable to you. Have our gov't buy drugs from the cartels...that's smart i bet they would do something real productive, like fund a terrorist group. The cartels have been growing in our state and national forrests for years, even the liberal magazines have done articles on it. I know not every doper hippie is a violent jerk, but i've never seen one who was an upstanding citizen. As far as googling law enforcement & drug policy...put your drugs down Mr. Bundy they are clouding you view.
Comment on Legalizing Drugs to reduce Violence
Tobias Schunck
Tobias Schunck
Feb 24, 2009 12:59 AM
Thank you for your article. It is becoming painfully clear that the drug wars that USED to be relegated to the border towns on the SOUTH side of the fence will continue to spread northwards. Already, Mexican-style home invasions, kidnappings and executions are being seen in areas hundreds of miles NORTH of the border.
Decriminalization would HAVE to be accompanied by massive public education AND by a 10 x increase in the availability of rehabilitation spots available to ANYONE who needs it. In addition, it should NOT detract from combating the organized drug cartels who are the source of much of the violence. Lastly, there would have to be a massive increase of drugged-driving related enforcement. But you are absolutely correct. The current strategy has not made anything better, in fact, there is increasing evidence that it has just added fuel (and profit) to the fire. Unfortunately, no strategy is going to work without a stable, legitimate and non-corrupt regime in Mexico. And with the rapid deterioration of the situation in Mexico, it does not appear that ANYTHING but reducing the demand for consumption IN THE USA will work.
Why is drug consumption so high in the USA? Because there are so many stressed out people here. Whenever I return from a long overseas trip, it always amazes me how stressed out people are here. And with the current economic downturn, that has gotten a lot worse.
This might sound a bit strange to a lot of people, but we need to create a much healthier society right here in the USA where regardless of economic, racial or ethnic background, everyone CAN have a healthy existence.
I am no bleeding heart liberal. I have NO illusion that there won't be a fragment of our society that will always be ingesting, inhaling or injecting drugs. But it always amazes me how many people, including professionals, use recreational drugs. So legalization ALONE is not the answer, not even as a first step. It must be accompanied by fundamental and massive changes in public health communications and services, the judicial and correctional system.
And even then, NEVER should we be accepting of gun-carrying, murdering narco-criminals. Those people have to be hunted down, pulled out of circulation or killed when they decide to fight back. Remember, it only takes a heavily armed, determined few to terrorize the rest of us. See Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Colombia, etc.
Surrender to those elements will be the destruction of our society.
How many people realize this country was...
Paul Magill Smith
Paul Magill Smith
Feb 24, 2009 08:08 PM
...founded on a drug (or lack of it)?

The Pilgrims were late arrivals, landing about a dozen years after Jamestown was settled in 1607. They were originally intending to head for Virginia, but when blown off course forced their captain to land in the neighborhood of Plymouth rock for the sole reason...THEY RAN OUT OF BEER!!!

Of course this was a health issue, because shipboard water was recognized as unsafe to consume. How is this any different from today's citizens realizing many drugs prescribed by physicians are unsafe? Doesn't our Constitution assure the right to, " liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"? Who but ourselves can decide that as long as it doesn't hurt others or infringe on their right to the same?

I recognize some drugs as dangerous, and should have bans just like a number of pharmaceuticals now foisted on us by greedy interests in corporate America.

It has been determined by those wiser & more knowledgeable than me the greatest danger, physically, psychologically, medically, & socially, to marijuana use is incarceration, so why is this second failed experiment at prohibition still in place? One word: GREED.

How many people even realize the Taliban had almost eliminated opium production in Afghanistan, but since US involvement Afghanistan now produces almost yearly record crops, and now is responsible for 90% of the worlds total supply? What's wrong with this picture?

We're spending about $60 billion per year with the Prison Industrial Complex, and about a quarter of that is to incarcerate potheads. What's wrong with this picture?

Americans spend about $120 billion per year on recreational drugs, most of it going out of the country for no real product coming back in except consumed ones. Why can't we have production, with regulation, in this country, and positively affect our balance of trade deficit?

I could go on, but I believe it is time for others to do their own research. Only uneducated, propagandized fools still believe prohibition is the best alternative. We've been there, done that, IT FAILED, so why are we trying it again?
Re-Legalize Marijuana and Destroy the Cartels
Bruce W. Cain
Bruce W. Cain
Feb 25, 2009 08:07 PM
Please watch and distribute the following link as far and wide as possible. "Yes We Can, Have Legal, Untaxed Marijuana!"

Re-Legalize Marijuana Now, Obama (1)
Pipe Dreams
Aug 08, 2010 08:45 PM
There was a time in my life when I would of thought this was the koolest. Then I saw people around me dieing or going to jail. Weed is moodaltering for addict like me the future is bleak, recovery happens all the time in So. Cal.