Illegal Drugs Kill People

Closeup on one of the corpses of two mur

Erik Vance reminds us of the enormous toll of cocaine trafficking:

I submit that the drug trade—and specifically cocaine—is among the worst things that the human mind ever invented (which is saying a lot, since we are especially good at inventing horrible things). No one has good numbers on the death toll of a given drug trade. I called and asked a few think tanks how many people cocaine has killed over the past 100 years and got mostly bemused laughs. Ioan Grillo, author of El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, has thought about this as much as anyone. When I asked him, all he could guess was a number with nine figures in it.

Just for fun, let’s try a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Around 60,000 were executed as witches during 150 years at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. Mexico alone has seen perhaps twice that many deaths during its seven-year drug war. From 1990 to 2010, Colombia had some 450,000 homicides, overwhelmingly due to coke. Add all the rest of Latin America (counting all the military actions that were driven by efforts to control trafficking routes as much as by politics), the U.S. share (15,000 per year on the high side, counting all kinds of drugs and overdoses and such). Now add an estimate of all the uncounted murders and overdoses and track that carnage back to the 1960s when the modern drug war began. The number starts to be in the league of the atrocities of Nazi Germany or American slavery.

He concludes provocatively, “So yes, I say that paying for coke is equivalent to donating to the Nazi party.” Meanwhile, Russell Crandall wonders whether legalization is as good a solution as many critics of the drug war claim:

The big question is whether the legalization of marijuana provides a model for controlling other drugs, like cocaine. Should we legalize all drugs, everywhere? Or, as some other pot legalization supporters contend, should marijuana be legalized but not other harder drugs? If that’s the case, then, at least for now, do Colorado, Washington, and Uruguay fall into the category of boutique reform in that they represent a one-off solution to marijuana but little else? …

[T]here were legitimate reasons why the United States (and often its Latin American allies) clamored to escalate the war on drugs: because drugs destroy societies. Demilitarization and legalization might be the way out or at least certainly preferable to the status quo. But we should also be prepared for the consequences. Alcohol consumption decreased dramatically during Prohibition and increased again after its repeal. Alcohol-related deaths also plummeted during the dry years. This is not to argue that repealing Prohibition was not wise or preferable, but these statistics are a reminder that punitive approaches (the very core of the supply side strategy) cannot be blithely dismissed. The notion that the drug war can simply be reformed through legalization writ large remains fanciful until more specific details are developed and successfully implemented.

(Photo: Closeup on one of the corpses of two murdered men found near the Costera Avenue in Acapulco, Mexico, on February 5, 2011. By Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images)