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In My Words: To help stem immigration crisis, U.S. drug policies must be reconsidered

Associate Professor Mathew Gendle writes for several regional newspapers about the impact drug laws have on foreign nations and how changes to American policies will create civic stability elsewhere, which can influence the number of people seeking refuge in the United States.

The following column appeared recently in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Fayetteville Observer, the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record and the Gaston (N.C.) Gazette via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.

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Associate Professor Mathew H. Gendle

To Help Stem Immigration Crisis, U.S. Drug Policies Must Be Reconsidered
By Mathew H. Gendle - mgendle@elon.edu

 
Throughout history, the United States’ approach to controlling recreational intoxicants has varied. Up until the early part of the 20th century, drug use in the U.S. was completely unfettered—heroin, morphine and other substances were sold openly and without restriction. In fact, cocaine, various opiates and syringe kits were once available for order from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue.
 
Beginning with 1914’s Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, a slew of laws burst forth to regulate cocaine, alcohol, marijuana and other drugs of abuse. These laws were often the product of blatant racism, sensationalism and political theater, and they set the stage for current regulations that function as ham-fisted political instruments rather than data-backed guardians of public health.
 
In the second decade of the 21st century the pendulum is again shifting, at least in regard to marijuana control. Several states have approved medical marijuana use and have decriminalized personal possession, and four have legalized cannabis use for recreational purposes.
 
After years of teaching and researching effects of U.S. drug policy, I have come to agree with what many public policy, economics and health experts have been saying for decades—the current “War on Drugs” is an expensive boondoggle. It has not meaningfully reduced drug supply, demand, availability or use, and it has wasted billions in tax dollars with little to show in return.
 
This “war” has also fostered here the world’s largest prison population, excessive court backlogs, the stigmatization of addiction and the erosion of the constitutionally protected freedoms of one’s own personal space.
 
One of the most significant benefits of ending the “War on Drugs” via regulated drug legalization is seldom discussed because its principle effect would take place outside our borders. Several countries in Latin America - Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador - are hosts to widespread violence and civil conflict.
 
Throughout the region, various criminal and insurgent groups utilize the profits of drug trafficking to finance their activities. From Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, to the FARC and AUC in Colombia, to Mexico’s Los Zetas, to various Central American gangs including Mara Salvatrucha – better known here as MS-13 – the violent actions of these groups are overwhelmingly underwritten by the proceeds of international cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine trafficking.
 
This drug-funded violence is one of the primary internal pressures that underlie the forced displacement of Latin American citizens to our borders. In recent months, this migration, particularly involving unaccompanied minors from Central America, has received a great deal of attention from the domestic press. Yet reports seldom connect the movement of these peoples to the role of U.S. drug policies in fueling the violence, corruption and poverty that contribute to their relocation.
 
For decades, the United States has pumped billions of taxpayer dollars into these countries in various failed attempts to increase security and peace in the region. The commonsense solution to the problem of drug funded violence in Latin America, and the human migration it causes, is to legalize and regulate recreational drug use within the United States.
 
The majority of money made through the production and trafficking of illegal drugs is never seen by the growers or the street-level dealers that move the product to consumers. Rather, these proceeds are largely retained by the transnational criminal organizations that transport the drugs from their source to the consumer. This trafficking is where the real risk lies, and where the real money is made.
 
A kilo of cocaine worth $1,000 in Colombia rises in value to $13,000 as it moves through Guatemala, and ultimately achieves a street retail value of over $170,000 on our streets. This massive profit is then returned to criminal organizations throughout Latin America where it finances activities that promote civil unrest, weakened governments, corruption and human rights abuses.
 
By regulating and legalizing drugs in the United States, this profit margin would vaporize, as would much of the negative activities it supports. Recent marijuana legalization and decriminalization efforts in a few states have resulted in a significant decline in the wholesale price of marijuana. Prices have dropped so much that many Mexican growers have given up on the crop entirely.
 
Our record of attempting to curtail use by destroying drugs at their source, preventing drugs from crossing our borders and jailing street-level distributers and users is not a winning one. As long as there is a demand for drugs, there will be a supply. And as long as mountains of money can be made, transnational trafficking networks will be at the ready to meet this demand.
 
This simple lesson should have been learned from our futile experiment with alcohol prohibition. Because the United States appears to be unable to meaningfully reduce citizen demand for drugs, and has been unsuccessful in curtailing drug production and importation, legalization must be considered as a tool to combat violence in regions to our south – the benefits of which will also be felt here.
 
Mathew H.Gendle is an associate professor of psychology at Elon University.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
2/1/2015 2:45 PM