From Juárez to London, the real victims of the ‘war on drugs’ are not the criminal gangs but ordinary young people
Nubia Legarda is a young woman from El Paso, Texas and Students for Sensible Drug Policy member. Just one year ago, she gave evidence to her city council urging them to pass a resolution on the violence in the Mexican border city of Juárez, and to promote a national debate over drug legalisation. While the resolution was initially passed, a number of representatives changed their minds after receiving pressure from the federal government, fearing that funding to the city would be cut in the event it passed.
Nubia has been unable to visit family in Juárez out of fear for the violence that is a daily feature of life there. She is just one of millions of young people around the world whose lives have been caught up in the war on drugs.
Last Thursday, people around the world lit candles to remember 16 young people who were murdered at a student house party in Juárez. They were celebrating when gunmen drove up to their house and opened fire on their victims. It is suspected they mistook the address for that of a rival drugs gang.
Last week, the El Paso city council passed a resolution to condemn the gang violence in Juárez, calling for a presidential summit on the drug war. Deleted from that motion again was a paragraph calling for the legalised regulation of cannabis by the US government. Clearly, the elimination of a major source of income from the cartels through regulation of sales would remove much of the profit incentive for impoverished but unscrupulous individuals to risk their lives and liberty by getting involved in a dangerous criminal empire, the product of global drug prohibition.
The tragic irony of this situation is that while prohibitionist drug laws are lauded as necessary to protect young people, they do the exact opposite. Speaking as someone who has attended secondary school in the past ten years, I can say it is an open secret that drugs are on sale in every secondary school in, for instance, London. Drug dealers do not ask for proof of ID. All the more concerning is that young people here get caught up in the same criminal culture, because of prohibition.
Opponents of anything other than the status quo will often claim that the removal of criminal penalties for possession and the regulation of the supply of currently criminalised drugs would “normalise” the use of drugs among young people. This is in the face of evidence that harsh drug laws do not lead to lower levels of use. After all, the United States, which has the highest prison population per capita in the world, the majority of whom are non-violent drug offenders, has higher levels of drug use than the Netherlands, even with its famously liberal drug laws.
Media hysteria, political posturing and lack of evidence lead the debate on drugs. Unless we can address the issue from the perspective of the welfare and rights of young people, drugs will continue to blight and cost lives – both in the UK, in Mexico, and worldwide.
By Levent Akbulut