By Dallin Overstreet

In our previous article on this topic, we explored the current drug situation in the United States. We examined drug prices, usage, overdoses, and the on-going situation at the U.S. – Mexico border, with respect to drugs. While the majority of the discussion has been focused on President Trump’s push for a border wall and immigration, talk about the influx of illegal drugs generally is swept under the rug. We hope to build a greater discussion about what is being done to limit the power of Mexican drug cartels and slow the influx of dangerous drugs into the United States.


Whether you’re 15 or 80 years old, drugs can have a profound effect on a life. Drugs can be used in many amazing, good ways and can save lives, but they can also be used to destroy lives. In recent years, drug abuse and overdose rates have skyrocketed in what has been termed the Opioid Epidemic. In 2017 alone, the number of deaths from drug overdose hit 70,000 in the U.S.

While there are many reasons for this increase, illegal drugs being smuggled across our southern border is a large part of it. According to Uttam Dhillon, the acting director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Mexican drug cartels are responsible for “distributing a vast majority of deadly synthetic drugs like methamphetamines and fentanyl that are coming across the southern U.S. border.” These hard drugs are extremely potent and are very easy to overdose on. So what policies have been put in place to counteract this disturbing trend? And what policies should be used in the future to combat drug cartels and lower the rates of drug abuse and overdose?

The War on Drugs

In 1971, President Nixon initiated what is known as the War on Drugs. Nixon “increased the size and presence of federal drug control agencies, and pushed through measures such as mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants.” The possession and use of drugs such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and meth were aggressively criminalized and offenders faced enormous fines and prison sentences.

In the ‘80s, the War on Drugs only escalated under President Reagan and incarceration rates soared. By 1997, there were 400,000 offenders behind bars for non-violent drug law violations, up from 50,000 in 1980. President Bush did nothing to de-escalate the War on Drugs, and while President Obama seemingly supported a shift in drug policy, nothing really changed. President Trump also seems to have no interest in ending the War on Drugs. Today, over 700,000 people are arrested per year for non-violent marijuana offenses.  All the while, drug abuse and overdose rates have been skyrocketing. Obviously, this type of government intervention is not working. It could actually be exacerbating the problem and may have created the perfect opportunity for Mexican drug cartels.

Mexican drug cartels have taken advantage of the U.S. War on Drugs. With such a large demand for drugs in the U.S. and supply in the U.S. being squashed by extreme drug policy, the cartels have formed a sort of oligopoly to meet that demand. Due to the lack of rule of law in Mexico, the cartels have gained enormous amounts of power in the drug world and beyond. “Over 99 percent of all marijuana and methamphetamine seized at U.S. borders has come from Mexico”, according to the Washington Examiner. This statistic demonstrates how much power Mexican drug cartels have in the U.S., being nearly the sole provider of illegal drugs in the U.S. By restricting the supply of drugs through the War on Drugs, the U.S. government has created an inhumane and nasty black market for drugs dominated by these cartels. The War on Drugs has done nothing but create an even larger problem than existed before. It is a monumental example of a government failure and overreach.


However, many states have started to come to their senses in recent years. As of this year, 10 states have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Another 33 states have also legalized marijuana, but only for medicinal purposes. This shift has started to have an effect on drug use and drug cartels. Since 2014, when states began legalizing marijuana, marijuana confiscations at the border have fallen dramatically. In 2018, 78% less marijuana was confiscated than in 2013. As supply in the U.S. has increased, prices have fallen, leaving cartels with less profit and less incentive to smuggle the drug. Clearly, less government intervention in this case is better.

But what would happen if the federal government were to legalize the recreational usage of marijuana? In our last report in this series, we detailed a few of the ways drug cartels smuggle hard drugs across the border, with the majority of those drugs entering through legal ports of entry. This fact completely delegitimizes any argument that a border wall will stop the large majority of drugs from coming into the U.S. Because marijuana is becoming less profitable for the cartels but still relatively cheap to make, the cartels use it as a distraction at border crossings. With marijuana still illegal at the federal level, border patrol agents must confiscate any amount of marijuana found trying to cross into the U.S. When border patrol agents swarm to confiscate any amount of marijuana, it instantly becomes easier to cross through with much smaller amounts of heroin, cocaine, meth, and fentanyl. While smuggled through in much smaller quantities, these drugs are far more valuable and profitable to the cartels.

If marijuana were to be legalized at the federal level, these situations would end. Far more hard drugs would be confiscated at the border because agents would be free to focus on these much more dangerous drugs. Drug cartels would lose power and profit by this policy change. Hopefully, U.S. drug policy will change to align more with the views of the majority of U.S. citizens and marijuana will be legalized at the federal level.

A More Extreme Approach

Another, much more extreme solution to end the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. and lower abuse and overdose rates would be to legalize all drugs. In 2001, Portugal was in a similar situation to what the U.S. is currently facing. Large numbers of citizens were incarcerated due to strict drug laws and addiction, abuse, and overdosings were high. But they took a dramatic step by taking a different route to defeat drug abuse. They legalized the use of all drugs and provided many rehab programs to people who were caught with decriminalized drugs. Instead of being sent directly to jail, drug users could receive counseling and a safe place to take their drugs. Clean needles were provided for them, followed by counseling sessions and addiction recovery therapy. When abusers came to the realization that they needed help, they no longer felt ashamed and afraid of asking for help. And the government was not wasting endless amounts of money to try to stop people from consuming things they wanted to put into their bodies.

This drug decriminalization has been a huge success. “Between 1998 and 2011, the number of people in drug treatment increased by over 60%; nearly three-quarters of them received opioid-substitution therapy.” The number of people that use heroin in Portugal has since fallen by 100,000, down to 25,000 from 125,000. In 2012, only 16 deaths from overdosing occurred. The number of individuals contracting AIDS has fallen dramatically too. On top of all that, the Portugeuse government spends just under $10 per year per citizen now. Compare that to the U.S. spending trillions of dollars on failed drug policies that intend to save lives. Clearly, when government steps back and allows people to make decisions for themselves, they are all better off.


Drug legalization, at the very least marijuana legalization, at the federal level would save many more lives than the War on Drugs has. Government should not be involved in deciding what individuals put into their bodies. Building a wall will not stop people from buying and using drugs. Legalizing drugs will destroy the inhumane drug cartels that exist at our southern border and will allow people to seek the help they need if they are addicted to dangerous substances. The government will spend less money helping people to break their habits than it would attempting to force them to live the way it wants. The U.S. should seriously reevaluate its drug policies and look to help people in the best way possible.

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