Two things are facts about the USA’s relationship with illegal drugs. One, that it contributes more money than any other nation to fighting the war on drugs. In fact, it spends over $50bn a year on it, mostly in aid payments to foreign nations. Two, that it has the highest illegal drug use per capita in the world.
Considering its geographical location, disparity in wealth, and population, the second might not come as a surprise. Most of this money goes to South American countries like Peru, Bolivia and Columbia, the two highest producers of cocaine in the world – cocaine is one of the most consumed illegal drugs out there, and it is also one of the most expensive.
More money goes into Mexico (where I am sure the totally not corrupt government puts it to good use) which has become the second largest producer of heroin after Afghanistan, as well as a premier producer of methamphetamine (crystal meth – we’ve all seen Breaking Bad, right?). Beyond that, it is the main channel for the producers in Latin America to funnel the drugs into the USA – the Mexican cartels get their hands on the relatively clean product, add cuts, and sell for profit. It is estimated they rake in about $50bn per year.
That number has increased significance. The money to fight the war comes from, of course, the taxpayer. It’s estimated that the US totally legalising marijuana alone would generate about $50bn again in tax revenue. Which, together, could accommodate for about one eighth of the American healthcare budget, for example. One only has to look at Colorado, which legalised marijuana in 2013, to see the effects – crime has gone down, productivity has gone up, and more money has been raised than they know what to do with.
But the advantages to wide scale legalisation are not just financially beneficial to the countries that do it – they are detrimental to the ones who lose out. Columbia’s ongoing (albeit quietened down) civil war is funded heavily through the sale of cocaine – the radical left wing, paramilitary right wing, and even pro-government organisations all have their own plantations and fund their activities in part through drug sales. In Mexico, the cartels have such power they rule over huge sections of the country that people dare not go near – and their integration with a corrupt government goes deeper than one could imagine. More than 100,000 people have died and over 1.2 million displaced in Mexico alone since 2006. Legalisation would kill so much of the funding for this groups, as people would not need to use street gangs and the black market for buying drugs.
Lastly there is the societal aspect. The war on drugs has a strong racial undertone in the US; African Americans are 35% more likely to be arrested, 55% more likely to be charged, and 75% more likely to be sent to prison on possession of drugs charges, although this coincides with the general institutionalised racism in the US. Indeed, since the War on Drugs was declared, the US saw a 60% increase in the number of people detained – some 1% of its population is in prison. That might not seem like much, but it’s 3.5 million people.
Decriminalisation would mean drug users are not treated like criminals, and quite rightly; it should never be criminal to do to one’s body what one wants. In Portugal and Canada, for example, drugs are decriminalised, and those who want help getting off addictions – or even just a safe place to take heroin, for example – are given the necessary help by the government. Full legalisation may be a step too far at this point, but one we have to go towards; it would kill the black market, give people a way to get high safely, on clean product, rake in money that can be used elsewhere, and go a long way to solving the violence that has plagued countries for years.