Opinion

Don't blame American drug users for violence in Latin America

Hey, Luke Russert: The drug war is the culprit you're looking for

During the 2006-2012 presidency of Felipe Calderón, the Mexican murder rate tripled. During roughly the same time in Honduras, it doubled; that nation now has the highest murder rate in the world. The United States has been jarringly informed of these facts, as a flood of refugee children fleeing gang violence have arrived in the country over the last few months.

Is this the fault of American drug users? Drug warriors would argue yes. Back in the early and mid-2000s, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Office of National Drug Control Policy ran a series of advertisements claiming, among other things, that drug use causes terrorism, since terrorists sometimes profit from the drug trade. These ads were so ham-fisted and ridiculous that they may well have increased drug use. But Luke Russert embraced this logic in a recent appearance on MSNBC, arguing that drug use is behind the violence in Latin America.

BuzzFeed's Dorsey Shaw captured the money quote: "You know what's one way to fix all of this, Alex? If people in America would stop doing drugs when they go out at nightclubs every friggin' weekend."

Russert later elaborated on Twitter, arguing that an up-close look at the violence in Latin America gave him the perspective snarky computer-users lack to see that U.S. demand for drugs is what causes the violence there.

Russert and the ONDCP are completely wrong. Let's restate their key points, just to be clear:

1. Violence in Latin America is carried out by drug cartels.

2. These drug cartels get much of their money by supplying the U.S. drug market.

3. Therefore, if Americans stopped using drugs, the cartels' profits would collapse and violence would decrease.

Postulates 1 and 2 are uncontroversial, and as a syllogism the logic may even hold. But by ignoring by far the most important and realistic factors in drug policy in favor of an impossible fantasy, the argument obscures much more than it reveals.

So yes, it is probably true that if all Americans stopped using all drugs tomorrow, violence would likely decrease substantially in Honduras and Guatemala. But let's get real: Meth, heroin, and cocaine (the major cartel profit centers, now that marijuana looks to be legalized eventually) are all highly addictive substances that are deeply entrenched in American society. It is probably more realistic to imagine every single American swearing off reality television tomorrow than every junkie in America suddenly beating extremely tough addictions.

Now, of all the alternative explanations for endemic violence in Latin America, there are only two major ones for which the U.S. is directly responsible. First, by prohibiting any sort of legitimate drug production in the United States, we place all the immense profits from the drug trade directly into the hands of criminals in Latin America. Drugs are cheap to produce, and many policy regimes, from full legalization to some sort of government monopoly disbursing drugs to certified addicts, would cut off the cartels at the knees.

Second, and perhaps more important with respect to gang violence in Latin America, we've aggressively pushed for a highly militarized approach to drug policy throughout the world. U.S. drug policy is all about exporting our drug war, pushing other nations to spray drug farms with herbicide, capture or kill cartel leaders, and worst of all, fight the cartels with the military.

This last one has been a comprehensive disaster, as toppling one cartel merely increases the violence as smaller gangs fight for freed-up territory, or move to a neighboring country, as Honduran President Juan Hernandez aptly argues. Simply allowing one gang to establish a monopoly of control would make for a relatively more peaceful situation. That was how things worked for most of the 20th century, and it's only in the last 10 to 15 years, under the highly militarized policies pushed by the U.S., that violence has really exploded in Latin America.

American drug users aren't the problem. American drug policy is.

Now of course, there are plenty of other reasons for violence in Latin America that have nothing to do with Uncle Sam. These nations have often embraced drug war policies of their own free will, and violence was pretty high there even before this recent massive spike. But if Russert is going to point the finger in America's direction, he'd be wise to focus on this country's abysmal history of drug prohibition and coercive policy, not on the drug addicts themselves. Shame the system — not its victims.

Update: Luke Russert sent a response to this article, and asked that we publish it. Here it is:

Surprised that you allowed a 6 second clip of video to represent the entirety of my thoughts on the subject and didn’t reach out for comment. If you listened to initial words or read my subsequent tweets, I never take a position on the “war on drugs” or legalization. My position was that recreational drug users cannot be absolved of the role they play in perpetuating narcoterrorism that afflicts impoverished communities. I stand by that. So while government policies certainly play a role, letting the individual off the hook is wrong and their usage should not be glossed over.

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