"If drugs were legal, that would not be happening," says Dan Baum, whose 1997 book, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure (Back Bay), is considered one of the best chronicles of the drug war's litany of failures. "It's a misapprehension of the truth to say that the violence in Mexico is because of American appetite for drugs. It's not the appetite for drugs — it's the prohibition that's causing the violence."
Certainly, these cartels traffic in some very bad stuff: heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine. But, says Nadelmann, "half of the Mexican drug gangs' revenue comes from marijuana. Legalizing marijuana is a pretty powerful way of depriving these gangsters of revenue — the same way we took Al Capone and those guys out."
Prohibitionists are at a loss for a coherent argument when it comes to the cartels, argues Mirken. "They'll say really dumb things like 'Legalizing marijuana isn't going to make these gangs turn into law-abiding citizens.' No, of course not! It will make them irrelevant! Just like you don't need bootleggers when you have Anheuser-Busch."
More and more credible people are echoing the sentiment. In January, Arizona attorney general Goddard opined that legalization "could certainly cut the legs out of some of these criminal activities." In February, former presidents Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León of Mexico, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, and César Gaviria of Colombia gathered at the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and called for decriminalization, decrying the fact that "current policies are based on prejudices and fears and not on results."
Just last week, former Mexican president Vicente Fox put it plainly: "I believe it's time to open the debate over legalizing drugs."
That debate, at least, is happening in earnest. What it leads to is another matter. In the meantime, says Mirken, "We are effectively subsidizing these horrible Mexican gangs by handing them the marijuana market."
Of course, it's not just Mexican presidents who are honest about drugs. American ones can also be pretty, er, blunt. "I inhaled frequently," then-candidate Obama admitted last year when asked if he had ever smoked pot. "That was the point."
To see how far we've come, consider the fact that, just 17 years ago, candidate Bill Clinton felt compelled to fudge his answer to that same question with his own infamous equivocation. Or that, 22 years ago, Douglas Ginsburg's admission to smoking pot cost him a Supreme Court seat.
People are much more comfortable with the idea of smoking marijuana than they once were. The media may have brewed up a tempest in a teapot when Michael Phelps was photographed with a bong held to his lips, and cereal giant Kellogg's may have voided his sponsorship deal in a panic. But most Americans couldn't give a fig.
"I do think it's begun to sink in for people now that the last three presidents have smoked marijuana," says Mirken. "As has the governor of California, the mayor of New York City, the guy [Phelps] who's won more Olympic gold medals than anyone on the planet."
Meanwhile, more and more people polled are comfortable expressing pro-legalization sentiments. "We've seen the numbers jump quite dramatically in the past six months to a year," says Nadelmann. "It's really quite something."