Why Mexican billionaire Ricardo Salinas thinks drugs should be legalized

July 9, 2015
A group of protesters set fire to the wooden door of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's ceremonial palace during a protest denouncing the apparent massacre of 43 trainee teachers, in the historic center of Mexico City

A group of protesters set fire to the wooden door of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s ceremonial palace during a protest in Mexico City, November 8, 2014. Protesters were demanding justice for 43 students who were abducted and apparently murdered and incinerated by corrupt police in league with drug gang members in September. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

“When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before,” John D. Rockefeller Jr., letter to Nicholas M. Butler, 1932

Did we learn anything from Prohibition?

Prohibition was a failure in the 1920s, and, for similar reasons, the so-called war on drugs has been a disaster. Forty years after Richard Nixon declared this war, consumption worldwide is up, violence has increased and the rule of law has collapsed, especially in Latin America.

Basic economics tells us that when there is artificial pressure on supply, prices go up and margins increase — the perfect incentives for criminal activities. The same mistake was made in the United States almost a century ago with Prohibition. As early as 1925, some observers started to see that this policy, far from stopping crime, was leading to the formation of large networks of well-funded crime syndicates.

Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932 partly due to his campaign promise to end Prohibition. People who originally favored Prohibition, such as John D. Rockefeller Jr., later fought for its repeal because of the devastating effects it had on agriculture and industry.

A world of crime

The dire results of the war on drugs are clear. Mexico is paying a very high price — a pound of flesh multiplied by a million– for a policy dictated in Washington with the clear support of the United Nations. At least 50,000 people have died in my country as a consequence of this policy in the past decade alone.

In a recent global report on homicides produced by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, it is suggested that poverty and inequality are the main factors that explain the increase in crime rates across Latin America. Curiously in Africa, a region much poorer than Latin America, homicide rates have not shot up and the U.N. report does not offer a coherent explanation why this is the case.

Nevertheless, the report offers valuable information. For example, in 2012, almost half a million people were murdered worldwide. More than a third of the killings took place in Latin America; Europe, by contrast, accounted for only 5% of the homicides. In most regions around the world, violence is decreasing, but not here.

The war on drugs is a war on Latin America

A great deal of the violence that is bringing down our region is a product of the war on drugs The criminal justice systems throughout Latin America and the United States have been undermined as the courts are clogged with victimless crimes such as drug possession. The prisons are overcrowded with victimless criminals. The United States, in particular, is a clear example of this phenomenon, with a quarter of the world’s incarcerations, almost half of them a product of drug-related felonies.

This generates impunity for criminals. They can’t all be caught, and they can’t all be prosecuted with criminal justice systems and law enforcement agencies that are so overwhelmed.

The U.N. report correctly points out that there is a clear correlation between levels of impunity and homicide rates, a phenomenon that is unmanageable in some regions of Mexico and Central America. It should be noted that seven of the eight most violent countries in the world are located on the cocaine route to the United States.

Countries such as Honduras, Venezuela, Belize and El Salvador reported rates of 90, 54, 45 and 41 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively. These are intolerable levels. The inability of the state to bring murderers to justice is a key factor in explaining this violence. Something is definitely and fundamentally wrong in Latin American criminal justice systems, and this subversion of the justice systems is corroding everything else in its wake. The war on drugs is sustained by a circular logic in which the damage generated by this policy is attributed instead to drug-related activities in order to justify it, a perverse inference that generates never-ending violence.

We need to move on

It’s been more than 40 years since the war on drugs was declared in Washington. Mexico has blindly followed the lead of its northern neighbor throughout this period, and there is little to show for it beyond the rise of violence and the steady decomposition of society. The economic forces are too vast. This is a multibillion-dollar industry that has subverted social order and the rule of law. Prohibition only means that the state has renounced its right to regulate narcotics by leaving this activity and its enforcement at the sole discretion of the drug lords.

This war is ravaging our hemisphere. Many know this. But few have the courage to speak up. So here it is: Let’s legalize drugs and regulate them, starting with cannabis. It should be noted that campaigns against tobacco, which is more addictive than cannabis, have been successful. Let’s redirect scarce resources to healthcare and education to highlight the dangers of substance abuse and free up our law enforcement and judicial institutions to focus on violent crime, corruption and the enforcement of property rights, gradually reestablishing the rule of law.

The United Nations promised decades ago a “world free of drugs.” This never happened. Many more people are dying as a consequence of this policy than by consumption of illicit substances. Let’s face it, the war on drugs is a fiasco.


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The spike in extreme violence (maybe closer to an avalanche) and societal decay, steadily evolving in the Middle Americas and her Northern neighbour, as outlined by Ricardo Salinas, may also be further inflamed by the economic necessity of Cartels to strategically alter the composition of the illicit drug market, to respond to production shifts, driven by seizures. For example, cannabis grown outdoors from heirloom seed-stocks, is a very clean high, with far less psychotic reactions and addictive grip, than indoor ‘turbo’ cannabis that is genetically modified. Large scale producers are forced indoors, and underground, by the military force of law enforcement practices. So if Societies were to regain regulation of drug production, provisions could be enacted to encourage production-to-market of cleaner, organic and far less virulent strains of cannabis; and highly potent and potentially holistically damaging strains could be taxed more heavily (as Tobacco is in Australia) to dampen demand, and skew demand to safer strains. I am sure the cartels would like to come back out into the sunshine again, from the dark sub terrain recesses they are now dwelling within. The same could be said of cocaine and opiate production. Organic products including fruit and vegetables, are a fast growing market segment. People are increasingly demanding transparency on where there consumables are coming from, how they are grown, how pests are controlled, what fertilisers are utilised. Consumers are prepared to pay more for farmers who are prepared to harvest in a sustainable way; who care for the earth. Cartels are not too constrained by the end-users desires on clean, unadulterated cocaine rock, or pure heroin. And now we see a further development where crystal meth or ice production is exploding due to the phenomenal margins that can be extracted from cooking of synthetic chemicals. Result has been reduction in supply of cannabis and cocaine, as production facilities embrace a relatively new player with gusto. A complete overhaul of approaches is required. Sure if all of these drugs were completely legalised (not just decriminalised), and production fell to the open market, some consumers would still succumb to addiction. However, just because your local supermarket has a whole aisle of chocolate products, the vast majority of conscious consumers do not tend to fill their shopping trolley with chocolate. Just like carefully crafted ‘illicit’ drugs, we like to save chocolate for special occasions. Enlightened contemplation now could create a seismic shift in this distasteful saga. Peace.

Posted by BaliBrave | Report as abusive

If we jail everyone, there would be no crime on the streets.

Posted by mikidot | Report as abusive

there are many more prohibitions and moral crimes in democracies. prostitution is a moral crime. Miller’s Harm principle can never be implement with illiterate, religious, welfare dependent masses.

Posted by yobro_yobro88 | Report as abusive

Smart people have advocated this for decades, and been vilified as a result.

Maybe our elites will listen to a billionaire, since they are so infatuated with worthless measures of competence such as adding up the money an oligarch can amass by extracting rents from his citizens.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

DEA is now a bureaucratic force that is “too big to fail”. The more violence the more they thrive. And do you really think that a political system that shrugs off 30,000 gun deaths a year in America cares at all about deaths in Latin America?

Posted by mnhsty | Report as abusive

poor logic

Posted by TruthOnTrial | Report as abusive

That’s just awful, I cannot believe people can be that stupid.

Posted by wallander | Report as abusive

mnsty’s comments are far removed from the reality of the human elements at play outlined above. I would prefer to believe that the vast majority of DEA agents (mentioned) would love to swap their distressful, violent worlds for a peaceful outcome to the 40 year war. I am sure they would prefer to throw their savings into a fresh startup or into the fields of rehabilitation, rather than endlessly blindly entering dark worlds, where some must never return, for little traction. As often evidenced in The Great Debate we have comments emerging showcasing racial overtones or just blind attacks on the POTUS’s credibility in managing a complicated constituency. Much hyperbole which is quite unproductive, considering President Obama is not running for a third term.

Posted by fyaox | Report as abusive