Here are three simple points to keep in mind this presidential campaign season:
- American money and appetites have created a massive black market for illegal drugs like marijuana, heroin and cocaine. (See here, here, here, or here for evidence of this well-documented claim.)
- Futile attempts to fight this black market by killing it have had a direct role in a decades-long drug war south of our border, one that has empowered violent criminal gangs that upend lives and spread terror across much of Latin America. (See here, here, here, here or here for evidence of this well-documented claim.)
- When those displaced in part by this fight seek refuge in America, we accuse them of spawning violence in our country. In reality, the exact opposite is a more accurate depiction of reality.
By now, you’ve probably seen the comments of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best; they’re not sending you,” the incendiary real estate mogul said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.”
Trump's remarks have drawn righteous condemnation — and for good reason. I very much agree with Salon’s Simon Malloy, who deftly skewers Trump’s proposed border wall; Vox’s German Lopez, who points out that “a century of research” refutes Trump’s claims about immigration and crime; and Timothy Egan, who at The New York Times ties Trump to a history of xenophobia and fear-mongering.
But while it’s good these criticisms have been swift and widespread, we should also recognize that they’re incomplete as codas to our immigration debate. Trump is a fun sideshow precisely because, as Peter Beinart points out in The Atlantic, all sane people agree that racist denunciations of helpless refugees is wrong.
The more difficult issue lies in convincing the American public — and leading Democratic politicians — about points one and two. And then there’s the more difficult task still: Convincing Americans that ending Mexico’s bloodletting requires a radical overhaul of our own drug policy.
Many academics believe that the only possible answer is legalization -- not just of marijuana, but of all drugs currently criminalized in the U.S. This is the 800-lb gorilla in the room (other than Trump himself, of course) and it’s one with profound policy implications we don’t fully understand. But given that more than 60,000 people in Mexico have died in cartel-related violence since 2006 with no measurable impact on U.S. drug supply, it’s irresponsible not to have the discussion.
“The only U.S. policy reform that would rapidly ameliorate trafficking-related problems in Mexico is legalization (not just decriminalization) of all drugs (not just marijuana),” write Jonathan P. Caulkins, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, and Eric Sevigny, a professor at the University of South Carolina, in a recent research paper titled “The U.S. Causes but Cannot Solve Mexico’s Drug Problems.”
“Legalization might solve two salient aspects of Mexico’s drug problems -- the violence and corruption associated with black markets.”
And yet support for ending drug prohibition remains, even on the left, a fringe cause. Great progressive hope Sen. Bernie Sanders, for instance, has not even explicitly supported making marijuana legal. (That’s despite evidence that legalization in some states is already cutting into the cartels’ power and polls showing healthy majority of Americans supporting it.) The leading Democratic contender for president, Hillary Clinton, has an abysmal record of supporting her husband’s expansion of the war on drugs. It goes without saying that the topic is a non-starter among Republicans.
This is the context with which we must view Trump’s comments on immigration. Trump's buffoonery — so clearly xenophobic, so demonstrably false — gives the media and other political leaders an escape hatch to avoid the really difficult questions about Mexico. It allows them to use Trump as a foil; in comparison to Trump, these elites can reasonably consider their approach the more benevolent, the more just, the more pragmatic.
They’re partly right to think so. But gratuitous insults of Mexicans isn’t really the problem we face. The real problem is that American prohibitionism has created a $30 billion drug trade in Mexico -- with 3 to 4 percent of that country’s annual GDP coming from the illegal drug trade -- and that no presidential candidate is willing to even entertain talk of the necessary solutions. In that sense, Trump is actually not outside the mainstream at all. Instead, he is sadly, snugly within its central confines.