Reducing drug violence in Mexico

My “elevator pitch” on reducing Mexican drug violence, captured by a crew at Brown.


This fall I visited the Watson Institute at Brown and gave a talk on drug violence in Mexico. Afterwards I did an interview, which they taped, edited, and supplied with some nice background visuals and graphics. Here’s the result. I’m much more coherent on video than I am in real life, and Lindsay Richardson and Ben Mandelkern managed to capture the essence of the argument in just over two minutes.


Opinion: Mark Kleiman – How can we reduce drug-related violence in Mexico and the US? from Watson Institute on Vimeo.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

20 thoughts on “Reducing drug violence in Mexico”

  1. I hope some day the mental and emotional health of the public is strong enough to permit legalization of controlled substances without a corresponding jump in abuse. Imagine those scumbags trying to figure out a way to compete with Phillip Morris cocaine or pot, it would be positively hilarious. Once scale set in Big Agra would be able to turn out a pound of high quality weed for chump change. I suppose we always have that up our sleeves as a sort of nuclear option if the war on drugs continues to heat up. I wish our fellow citizens understood that under the current system when they buy some coke for the upcoming party they are also paying the salary and buying the gear of the vermin who kill honest Mexican police and government officials.

  2. Your wish: I wish our fellow citizens understood that under the current system when they buy some coke for the upcoming party they are also paying the salary and buying the gear of the vermin who kill honest Mexican police and government officials seems misguided.

    I’d say you have the cause-and-effect all wrong, Student. Exchanging money for product does not create violent crime. Does a war on commerce make sense to you? If you’re going to declare cause-and-effect here, you need to think just a bit deeper and try to understand what it is about the illegal drug business that makes it so much more violent than other businesses. Here’s a hint: it’s not drugs either — there are plenty of legal, non-violent drug businesses, like the drug stores, liquor stores, and tobacco shops you see everywhere.

    For rational analysis of the cause-and-effect of the violence inherent in illicit drug markets, I refer you to an excellent article I just read by Richard Feldman, which I highly recommend to anyone truly seeking effective means of reducing drug market related violence that doesn’t rely on hopes and wishes:

    Competition for control of lucrative illegal markets for banned drugs makes violence an inevitable means to settle arguments, because neither the courts nor the police enforce business transactions between gangsters.

    Your hope: I hope some day the mental and emotional health of the public is strong enough to permit legalization of controlled substances without a corresponding jump in abuse seems misguided too.

    Who’s to say (yeah, I know Mark says it all the time) what would happen in a theoretical legalized scenario we haven’t experienced in generations? A hundred years ago you could buy a syringe of cocaine from the Sears catalog, but the cocaine abuse epidemic of the 1980’s didn’t happen until after decades of the glamorization of cocaine use due to the side-effects of it’s prohibited status. Who’s to say that regulated commercial availability and advertising would make drug abuse any worse than what we’ve already seen under prohibition? Who’s to say alcohol abuse is worse now than it would be if alcohol were still prohibited? Ever had some authentic moonshine? At first, nothing, then WHAM!, you’re blubbering and crying like a baby. It’s effects are quite different from those of the alcohol you buy legally. Alcohol prohibition caused a perverse incentive to produce moonshine instead of say, beer or wine, for black-market sale because it is concentrated and easier to smuggle. This effect of prohibition is also seen with crack cocaine, which contributed heavily to the ’80’s epidemic of cocaine abuse. One thing we can say with confidence is that drug-related violence would be a MUCH bigger problem if alcohol were still prohibited in the US.

    Unintended perverse incentives run deep in prohibition policies — they’re everywhere. For one example, Feldman points out that our current policy of asset forfeiture provides a perverse incentive to allow dealers to sell their drugs before arresting them so that law enforcement officers can seize the cash instead of the drugs, which would just be destroyed once no longer needed for evidence. This policy also provides incentive to bust anyone with a wad of cash and no incentive whatsoever to focus on reducing violence. Proposals such as the one Professor Kleiman promotes have much to overcome if they are to be effective.

    More and more people are coming to the conclusion that drug prohibition just plain doesn’t work. More and more studies are concluding that drug education and treatment are highly effective in reducing abuse. According to The Rand Drug Policy Research Center (referenced in the linked article): drug treatment is twenty-three times more effective than the supply-side “war on drugs”. We don’t need to hope or wish, or try so hard and spend so much to come up with new ways to fix our broken prohibition machine that never once worked in the first place, we just need to do what we know does work. Political forces and entrenched interests work hard to maintain the status quo, but the tide is turning and people are starting to demand real solutions that actually help things instead of making them worse.

    1. One man’s rational analysis is another man’s blather. The linked article mainly convinces me one more vital reason for legalizing marijuana is to get rid of a facile argument used by glibertarians.

          1. As always, your logic is impeccable. So convincing! I thought Feldman argued a few good points there, but if the high-wattage intellectuals at the RBC label the arguments “facile” and those who make them “glibertarian”, well that’s all the rebuttal I need. Certainly any justification for using those labels would be unnecessary and redundant! What a fool I’ve been!

          2. I’m not a high-wattage intellectual. I’m just a guy who finally finished his degree at forty-seven and has spent a lot of his life smelling out BS.

            But yeah, a nearly-harmless intoxicant is exactly the same thing as a machine designed to kill multiple people in seconds. Thanks for pointing that out.

            The article really did remind me of a big (if unpersuasive) reason to legalize marijuana: It’s an easy decision.

            Guns, though, that’s hard. There is a compelling interest in having a citizenry able to resist state power and in having a citizenry not afraid of being shot down in the street by Joe Idiot.

            But sure, you can pretend it’s the same thing. Freedom uber alles.

          3. Wow John, you have quite an imagination. I didn’t read in Feldman’s article, nor did I say or intend to imply, any sort of false equivalence between marijuana and guns. What I pointed out, that I got from the linked article, was that the interests of marijuana legalization activists and gun-rights activists, entities typically from opposite sides of the political spectrum, have some significant overlap with regards to opposing the war on drugs now that the liberty-grabbing aspects are spreading to issues of legal gun ownership.

  3. BTW: Richard Feldman is president of the Independent Firearms Owner’s Association. His article is about the merging of interests between marijuana legalization activists and gun-rights activists. It’s a very insightful and interesting article. If organizations like his and the NRA are getting behind marijuana legalization, we may get the opportunity to test everyone’s what-if legalization theories under modern real-world conditions sooner than expected.

  4. I wonder how Dr. Kleiman feels about the graph in the video depicting expenditures on drug prohibitions and the homicide rate (taken from Jeffrey Miron’s “Drug War Crimes”), particularly since Dr. Kleiman is somewhat dismissive of the relationship it appears to document. For example, in his recent book, “Drugs and Drug Policy,” Dr. Kleiman states that “the data do not support the claim that Prohibition increased the murder rate overall…the largest part of the purported ‘prohibition effect’ on homicide is a mere data artifact: the number of jurisdictions whose homicides were being counted centrally rose over the period” (p. 23).

  5. I can’t see the years on that graph. Are they sure it’s a “causal” link? I thought those were pretty hard to prove. I’m just saying.

  6. @Freeman: I did not mean that the production and distribution of cocaine is an intrinsic cause of violence, I meant what I wrote, which was that “under the current system” a dollar spent on cocaine is some fraction of a dollar in the hands of a psychopath. I believe without hesitation that legalization of any prohibited substance of abuse would lead to the complete eradication of violence perpetrated by distributors (though it might not be so great for DV) because the distributors would become CVS and PM. You do not need to spend so much time and effort to persuade me that CVS could distribute cocaine without killing off or corrupting the police, that much is perfectly obvious. It cannot be argued sanely that prohibition is the sole cause of the violence however, as a simple thought experiment will demonstrate. Would there be any violence under prohibition if there were no consumers? Obviously not, and so it is both prohibition AND consumption TOGETHER which lead to violence. I believe that the majority of my generation is not aware of the fact that, given that prohibition is the law of the land, their consumption of cocaine will contribute more or less directly to violence in all nations and perhaps even the failure of states such as Mexico.

    Your argument concerning the efficacy of prohibition is much more interesting and is not aimed at a straw man. Of course we cannot be sure what the effects of legalization on consumption would be, but I am not so ready to dismiss the opinions of policy wonks like Mark. I have had the pleasure of completing a crime control policy class taught by Dr. Kleiman and I strongly believe that he would support any policy whatever which he genuinely believed would improve the human condition. He is no drug warrior. He may be wrong on any given issue, but his opinions are credible and properly motivated. The possibility that social damage caused by abuse would increase dramatically under legalization has to be balanced with the obvious fact that prohibition causes damage too. I think perhaps you have underestimated the difficulty of said balancing.

    You write of the efficacy of treatment and education, what of the efficacy of the HOPE program? Are you not interested in the fact that repeat drug offenders, some of whom would doubtless have claimed to be hopelessly addicted and many of whom would meet clinical criteria for substance dependence, will simply stop immediately if physical sanctions follow hard upon drug use? Is that not a truly incredible finding? Are you so uncomfortable with social engineering that you would rather legalize everything and not explore the implications of HOPE further?

    1. Yes, under the current system, I got that the first time I read it. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard the argument. I’m laying out why I don’t buy it or the implication that the drug user should feel responsible (or be held so) any more than the lawmaker or the taxpayer. As with legal intoxicants, the consumer generally just wants to do his thing in peace, and incites no violence upon anyone in the act of procuring and consuming. The “law of the land” incites violence in attempting to prevent that by force. The legal vacuum in which the black market exists reverts to the natural law of violence due to the legal system’s refusal to grant equal protection to entities participating in that market. You can say the law of the land trumps all that and tips the blame toward the consumer, and I will say that the law of nature trumps that, and tips it the other way. Going back to the Genesis story, nobody’s ever been able to successfully ban consumption of something by force when there exists a natural desire for it within the population.

      Your thought experiment fails because it’s utopian: There’s never been a society without consumers of intoxicants, and if the species ever manages to achieve it someday, it won’t be by force of law. Remember: This is the “Reality-Based Community”.

      While I haven’t had the good fortune to have studied under Dr. Kleiman, I’ve been reading here for quite some time and he’s definitely earned my admiration and respect for his opinion. I agree with almost everything Mark has to say in his analysis of drug issues and diagnosis of the status quo of the drug war effort. I mostly disagree with him when it comes to what to do about it, particularly with regard to legalization. Legal or not, there will alway be problem abusers of any intoxicant, and programs like HOPE show a lot of promise in effectively dealing with those issues. In the time-honored tradition of blog commenting, I tend to speak up more when I dissent — there seems little point in dittoing everything I agree with.

      With regards to the difficulty of balancing prohibition vs. legal regulation: I haven’t heard one single anti-legalization policy wonk (Mark included, uncomfortable as he is with current alcohol policy) who will say that alcohol prohibition is preferable to legal regulation. That one doesn’t seem very difficult at all. The lawless black market is the root of the problem, I’ll go along with whatever effectively deals with that. I read recently (haven’t vetted it yet for accuracy) that Switzerland instituted a policy of giving heroin away for free to addicts in a clinical setting where they receive counseling and treatment. Unable to compete with free, the illegal heroin market evaporated. Switzerland’s saving money because it’s cheaper to give it away than fight it. Existing addicts are getting treated and new ones aren’t coming along to take their place because it’s no longer on the streets and addicts no longer need to deal and get others hooked to feed their habit.

  7. I might add that my local DARE program did absolutely nothing to prevent me from smoking enough of the devil’s lettuce to sustain 5 Woodstocks throughout my adolescence.

    1. I’m too old for DARE. In my day they just told us guys we would grow breasts if we smoked weed. The effects must be highly delayed — forty years later and I’m just now starting to get man-boobs. ;>)

  8. I agree it is impossible to accomplish the pure goal of prohibition (to stop all abuse completely), but if we can lower the rates of abuse for certain high impact intoxicants like meth and crack through prohibition we should seriously consider it. None of us will live forever, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t eat healthy and exercise with the goal of living longer.

    1. I’ve watched this war rage on for the last four decades, and that’s enough serious consideration for me. I’ve watched as spending, enforcement, incarceration, minimum mandatory sentences, drug-testing, forfeitures, stop-and-search, paramilitary police raids, and every other effort toward prohibition you can name has risen exponentially decade after decade, while rates of abuse have failed to recede. Rates of drug abuse are very high in our prisons, where enforcement and control over the population is at it’s highest. It’s never going to work. Never has, never will. I don’t mean it’s never going to accomplish any pure goals or that it will fail to be 100% effective. I mean it’s never going to make meaningful progress toward any of it’s intended purposes, and cannot help but burden society beyond it’s monetary costs with all of it’s unintended consequences.

      1. Yes, you’ve watched as public policy grew both more unhinged and more punitive, and that indeed hasn’t worked. (You left out the part about lying–so much of the “research” about the effects of marijuana and the psychedelics has turned out to be BS.) It’s pure madness and you’re right to call it out. What you haven’t seen, and what just might work, is a sane, non-punitive approach involving treatment, considerably milder sanctions for simple use (and none for pot), the big hammer reserved for people who just might deserve it, and an end to the culture war approach.

        I think that’s worth trying. I say this as someone who used to take the full legalization approach and who still would not ever put anyone in jail or compulsory treatment just for use or personal possession of an intoxicant.

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