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Originally published Tuesday, May 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Mexican drugs: a smarter approach

Only lightly noted on this side of the border, our neighbor Mexico is engulfed in bloody, violent combat with and between death-dealing...

Only lightly noted on this side of the border, our neighbor Mexico is engulfed in bloody, violent combat with and between death-dealing drug cartels.

In a stunning reversal for President Felipe Calderón's crusade to subdue the drug trade and its perpetrators, Edgar Gomez, the national police chief and lead anti-cartel crusader, was assassinated this month outside his Mexico City home. "This could have a snowball effect, even leading to the risk of ungovernability," Mexico City sociologist Luis Astorga told The Washington Post.

Yet it's hardly unique. More than 20,000 Mexican troops and federal police are struggling against the private armies of rival drug lords. Literally hundreds of officials and police have been murdered in the struggle.

Talk about a national security issue for the United States! We share a 2,000-mile border with Mexico; it's our second-largest trade partner, especially huge in agriculture. Millions of families are related across the border; thousands of Mexicans regularly cross over for work.

There's a U.S. response before Congress right now. It's President Bush's request for a so-called Merida Initiative — a $1.4 billion, three-year program to undergird the Mexican government's anti-drug efforts with helicopters and other military equipment, training for Mexican police forces, plus phone-tapping, mail-inspection and Web surveillance.

But there's substantial congressional skepticism about aid that could flow to the notoriously unaccountable, often corrupt, Mexican military and police forces. And then the tough, basic question: Realistically, how much could U.S. aid of roughly $500 million a year do to stem the gargantuan illegal drug trade that now flows across the Mexican border — about $23 billion a year by U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates?

And is the problem really Mexico — or our demand for drugs?

There are three much smarter steps that a rational United States would take.

First, face up to where the Mexican cartels get their weapons of death. Virtually all, including pistols, grenades, high-powered ammunition and assault weapons such as the AK-47, are smuggled from U.S. territory, across the border into Mexico, where the gangster elements pay premium prices for them.

The weapons are often purchased legally at gun shows in Arizona and other states where loopholes permit criminals to buy guns without background checks.

Our obvious answer: Seal all gun show sales loopholes, requiring checks on every purchaser. And reinstate the U.S. ban on assault-gun purchases that Congress, under gun-lobby pressure, let expire in 2004.

A second smart move: Reduce demand for drugs on the U.S. side through treatment for addicted individuals. Consider cocaine alone. The RAND Corporation found that dollar for dollar, drug treatment is 10 times more effective at reducing its use than drug interdiction.

Our big mistake: Making Mexico the villain when it's really the victim. And it's "a familiar game," notes Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance:

"U.S. leaders blame another country for our failure to reduce drug misuse here at home. That country escalates its war against drugs but asks the U.S. to pick up part of the tab. Aid is given, but it ends up having no effect on the availability of drugs in the United States. Politicians in Washington point their fingers again, and the cycle continues."

Indeed, patterns of the international narcotics trade show that whenever some source of production or smuggling route gets clamped down, drug production and drug-trafficking gangs quickly regroup.

Third and most basic of all: recognize that while prohibition of socially disallowed drugs can increase their cost, it can never halt demand. Desire for mind-altering substances is virtually built into the human psyche.

Americans might recall the counsel of the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who learned the immense dangers of repressing demand as he watched America's misadventure into alcohol prohibition, and how it triggered the Al Capone-era wave of gang wars:

"Illegality creates obscene profits that finance the murderous tactics of the drug lords; illegality leads to the corruption of law enforcement officials. ... Drugs are a tragedy for addicts. But criminalizing their use converts that tragedy into a disaster for society, for users and nonusers alike."

So now comes the Merida Initiative — fueling the drug wars, foisting the consequences of our misguided prohibition onto an already beleaguered neighbor. Will we never learn?

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times.

His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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