Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Offering Alternatives to Failed Drug Policies

February 7, 2012

“The rhetoric of international drug policy is all about shared responsibility for reducing the flow of drugs,” Mark Kleiman, a professor public policy in the UCLA School of Public Affairs, said at the Watson Institute earlier this month. “Everybody agrees that reducing the flow of drugs from Mexico to the US is an important goal – everybody but me.”

“I think it’s a completely insensible goal,” said Kleiman, who spoke at the Institute’s Joukowsky Forum in a talk titled “Managing Drug Violence in Mexico.” 

Kleiman’s lively presentation – which included detailed policy analyses alongside references to the satirical British sitcom “Yes Minister” and Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” comic strip – drew upon an article Kleiman published in the September/October 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, entitled “Surgical Strikes in the Drug Wars: Smarter Policies for Both Sides of the Border.”

“The flow of drugs from Mexico to the US, given that the Caribbean route is mostly shut, is determined entirely by conditions in the US,” Kleiman told the audience at Brown. “It’s determined by how many Americans want drugs at various prices, and how many other Americans are willing to take the risk of selling them.”

“Very little that happens in Mexico can drive drug consumption in the US. So we have the US pounding on the Mexican government, and other source country governments, to pursue a nonsense goal, to pursue the impossible, to shovel sand against the tide,” he said.

Kleiman teaches courses on methods of policy analysis, imperfectly rational decision-making at the individual and the social level, and drug abuse and crime control policy, and his current research focuses on reducing crime and incarceration by substituting swiftness and predictability for severity in the criminal justice system. 

In recent years, he has studied the HOPE probation system, as well as the relationship between drug policy and violence in Afghanistan and Mexico, and has worked to provide advice to local, state, and national governments on crime control and drug policy.

Kleiman, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis, is also the author of Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control; of Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results and When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment, which was recognized by the Economist as one of 2009’s "Books of the Year." His most recent book is Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Kleiman told the audience at Brown there is “no serious proposal on the table that could actually contain the violence” in Mexico, where more than 1,000 people are killed per month amid drug-related violence. Kleiman rejected the official stance of the US and Mexican governments, which advocates increased law enforcement in Mexico.

“There’s actually no reason to think that we can get to a situation where Mexico has enough drug law enforcement to suppress drug dealing,” he said, adding “Mexico is by far the best place from which to get drugs into the US, and the US is a very, very large drug market.”

“Increasing drug law enforcement in a source country puts more money on the table, and gives a larger share of it to the guys you’re most afraid of, and creates an incentive for more violence, not less violence,” he added.

Kleiman also dismissed what he said are “unrealistic” discussions of drug legalization, noting that although the United States, for example, legalized alcohol consumption in 1933, such legalization did little to reduce the violence associated with alcohol: “It’s eliminated the violence associated with alcohol dealing, but not with alcohol consumption,” he said. 

Instead, Kleiman offered a different solution to the problem of drug violence in Mexico, telling the audience at Brown: “What I want to propose is targeted enforcement of violence, rather than at drug dealing generically.”

Kleiman went on to offer a Mexico-focused application of David M. Kennedy’s Boston ceasefire project, whereby the United States government would determine a selection principle to specifically target violent drug cartels and carry out a selective enforcement program that delivered a focused attack on US distributors purchasing the illicit drugs from Mexico. 

Kleiman’s talk was sponsored by Brown’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Last spring, CLACS organized a conference, “Violent Cities: Challenges of Democracy, Development and Governance in the Urban Global South,” pairing academics and practitioners from different world regions to discuss causes and potential solutions to urban violence. CLACS will continue such scholarship on April 12-13 with “Drug Wars in the Americas: Looking Back and Thinking Ahead,” a two-day conference featuring Cesar Gaviria, the former president of Colombia and also former secretary general of the Organization of American States; Alan Bersin, assistant secretary of international affairs at the US Department of Homeland Security; Genaro Garcia Luna, Mexico’s secretary of public security; Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican writer; and Ricardo Lagos, former President of Chile.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Lauren Fedor ‘12