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Legalizing Marijuana Would Hurt Mexican Drug Cartels More Than Trump's Border Wall

Even by the wasteful standards of the War on Drugs, Trump's wall looks like a boondoggle. But legalization in some states is already hurting the cartels.

Alejandro Bringas/EFE/NewscomAlejandro Bringas/EFE/NewscomA crucial part of President Donald Trump's rationale for building a wall along the United State's border with Mexico is that it would help to stop the trade of illegal drugs, including marijuana.

"I want to build the wall. We need the wall," Trump said at one of the presidential debates last year. "We stop the drugs. We shore up the border."

There's other reasons for building the wall, of course. It would help to staunch what Trump sees as a flood of illegal, migrant workers from Mexico and would serve a symbol of the Trump administration's protectionist, America-first policies on trade—the physical embodiment of Trump's efforts to undo NAFTA. Beyond that, it would be a big, expensive building project and Trump likes big, expensive building projects.

Still, the idea of stopping the flow of illegal drugs from Mexico remains central to the border wall's function. Kellyanne Conway, Trump's White House counsel, said as much last week in an interview with CBS.

Mexico doesn't want to pay for the well, Conway told CBS News' Gayle King, "because they want to continue to allow people and I assume drugs, since they're not doing much to stop that, pouring over our borders."

If the Trump administration wants to stop the flow of drugs over the border, though, building a wall might not be the most effective policy, says David Bienenstock, the head of content at High Times and a reporter with 15 years of experience covering marijuana markets and the federal government's war on those markets.

Instead of increasingly militant and expensive measures designed to stop the flow of drugs, Bienenstock told Reason in an email interview this week, Trump should be backing the legalization of marijuana, which has already begun to cut into the drug cartels' profits while creating American jobs.

"It's important to understand that the Drug War created the cartels, not the other way around," says Bienenstock. "We've been wasting trillions of dollars for nearly 50 years on wholly ineffective, and even counterproductive, efforts to stop the flow of drugs into the United States, and those efforts have only made the cartels bigger, stronger, and more dangerous."

Even by the wasteful standards of the War on Drugs, Trump's wall looks like a boondoggle. Reason's Shikha Dalmia did the math on The Wall this week, and the numbers are sobering.

"Just a single-layer fence—not a wall—on the 1,300 miles of the open Southern border will cost upwards of $6 billion—assuming, as per a CBO study, pedestrian fencing costs of $6.5 million per mile and vehicle fencing costs of $1.7 million per mile," she wrote. "A single Border Patrol agent costs about $171,400 annually. So tripling that force would add up to a whopping $7 billion or so more a year, according to the CBO. Annual maintenance costs would be hundreds of millions of dollars. In short, the total hit if cost projections don't balloon—a big if, assuming that Trump won't use illegal Mexican workers and will use only American steel—would be somewhere close to $15 billion upfront."

Trump says Mexico is going to pay for the wall, but slapping higher taxes on imports will force American consumers to bear most of the cost. And for what? If Trump actually builds the wall, the cartels will only build more and better tunnels, as the New York Times reported in September, citing Border Patrol agents who have worked to find and destroy drug tunnels for years. Trump says the wall will include technology to detect tunnels, but that technology doesn't exist yet and would only add to the project's price tag. Securing the full length of the 1,900-mile southern border is virtually impossible.

"No amount of enforcement, even military-level, can remove the financial incentive of the black market," says Bienenstock, the author of How To Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High. "In fact, every increase in enforcement only makes the black market more lucrative, and the fight to control this illicit trade more deadly and destructive."

The less expensive, more effective way to reduce the flow of drugs over the border is loosen drug laws here in America. In fact, liberalized marijuana laws in some states are already having an effect. The Washington Post reported in March that "marijuana seizures along the southwest border tumbled to their lowest level in at least a decade."

"Agents snagged roughly 1.5 million pounds of marijuana at the border, down from a peak of nearly 4 million pounds in 2009," the Post reported. "The DEA has even found evidence that the flow of illegal marijuana is starting to reverse, with some cases of U.S. marijuana being smuggled into Mexico."

In December 2014, NPR News spoke to a marijuana grower in Mexico who described a similar economic phenomenon created by the legalization of marijuana in some parts of the United States. "Two or three years ago, a kilogram of marijuana was worth $60 to $90," the grower told NPR. "Now they're paying us $30 to $40 a kilo. It's a big difference. If the U.S. continues to legalize pot, they'll run us into the ground."

Trump knows this, even if he doesn't say so anymore.

In April 1990, during a luncheon hosted by the Miami Herald, Trump described U.S. drug policy as "a joke" and said there was only one sure way to win the War on Drugs.

"You have to legalize drugs to win that war," Trump said. "You have to take the profit away from these drug czars."

Trump should listen to his own advice and look to legalize marijuana at the federal level, instead of spending political capital and lots of cash on a border wall that will deserve its place in the War on Drugs hall of shame.

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  • Bubba Jones||

    Why is vehicle fencing so much cheaper?

    How much for barbed wire and land mines?

  • Fire Dalmia (DoM5k)||

    What bout a moat? Filled with alligators? Oooh! Or sharks with lasers!

  • ||

    We've already got the Rio Grande and there already are the occasional alligators.

  • Sonoran Desert Rat||

    I would not swim with alligator gar.

  • gaoxiaen||

    A Sharknado moat? Cool!

  • SKR||

    A pedestrian fence has to prevent people from climbing over it, a vehicle fence just needs to keep pickup trucks from driving through it. Concrete K Rails would do that but not stop people at all.

  • DaveSs||

    I'm curious what a fence that costs $1,231 per linear foot looks like.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Like a doggie-style septugenarian's posterior.

  • Tyler.C Sloopy's mom matters||

    Woah woah, woah, who said anything about hi
    Hurting Mexican cartels?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    +2 much money in it

  • Cute Little Bunny Rabbit||

    +4 the children

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Phew. I was worried "reason staff" might run out of innovative ways to bash Trump.

  • Crusty Juggler - #2||

    He deserves respect, dammit!

  • Grand Moff Serious Man||

    That ain't the way I wanted it! I'm smart, I can handle things! Not dumb like everyone thinks, I'm smart and I want respect!

  • The Late P Brooks||

    As for the wall, itself: we missed our big chance to just stack all the crushed Cash for Clunkers hulks along the border.

  • Tionico||

    China were paying more for the steel than it was worth, not even considering trucking the hulks out to the desert and laying them end to end. Besides, too easy to climb over or through those hulks, and the Mexicans would merely see them as a new resource, and have begun stripping them of usable parts to resell north of the boundary. They ain't stupid. v

  • Diane Merriam||

    Prohibition always produces the same results. Rampant crime and violence. They just brought it on slower this time so the connection wasn't quite so obvious.

  • l0b0t What about Sloopy's Mom?||

    How about FedGov just annex the rest of Mexico?

  • thom||

    If the CA secession thing picks up steam, I think it would be worth exploring the idea of making reparations to Mexico for stealing their land and return CA to them to make everything right.

  • Tionico||

    ever read that classic book The Moue that Roared? We'd end up feeding Mexico for a couple centuries.

  • John||

    If we want to shut the cartels down, legalize pot, speed and coke. They would no longer have anything to sell and would quickly go broke.

    The wall won't solve the cartels but I don't think that is the primary purpose of building it. It is good and hardly surprising that legalizing pot is hurting the cartels. That is good news but really has nothing to do with Trump or the wall. Not all stories relate to Trump. Just saying.

  • Jerryskids||

    The primary reason for building a wall is because Trump wants a wall. A big, beautiful wall. Possibly built of imported Italian marble. With gold-leaf scroll accents along the cornicework. Oooh, and wall sconces. Maybe some nice fountains, a rock garden, a nice, shady, ivy-covered arbor with a fire pit and some lovely rattan chaise longues in the seating area.

    Say what you want about Trump, the man has a flair for design and décor and interior decorating. NTTAWWT. Just saying.

  • ||

    This will not do John. You are a high ranking fascists here. Now step up. It is all Trump all the time. The Trumpenreich must move apace.

  • Matrix||

    Cartels won't just go quietly into the night once drugs are legalized. They are already doing other things like human trafficking. It will just get worse because their major source of revenue would vanish with drug legalization. So they would ramp up human trafficking. Legalizing prostitution would reduce that some, but not enough. And most of their customers probably aren't even in the US.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    This is not an argument against drug legalization.

  • SKR||

    Drugs are easier and more profitable than humans to smuggle. Even if they switch to humans and weapons, their organizations would be severely harmed by legalization.

  • Leo Kovalensky||

    Just legalize everything that the cartels might want to import. We are libertarians after all.

  • Authoritarian Fries||

    Trump knows this, even if he doesn't say so anymore:

    "You have to legalize drugs to win that war," Trump said. "You have to take the profit away from these drug czars."

    Howard Stern seems to think his dear friend Donald Trump still holds this beliefs.

  • Authoritarian Fries||

    "these" beliefs. Christ.

  • ||

    The wall isnt meant to be effective. The wall is a physical manifestation of Trump's constinuency saying, "because fuck you, that's why." Of course those at the receiving end of this fuck u thats y aren' happy about it and Nick and company are too busy at costco to buy toliet paper from all the pants shitting

  • Authoritarian Fries||

    The Anti-Trump Is Rising in Mexico. Each Snub Makes Him Stronger

    Amlo is a "Hugo Chavez wannabe," Cardenas wrote in National Review. He warned of likely disputes "on everything from border security, counterterrorism, and drug-war cooperation to deportations and restricting Central American migration."

    https://www.bloomberg.com

  • ant1sthenes||

    Well, on the plus side, after the war we can try to improve our new territory so people are less likely to want to escape it. The southern Mexico wall will still be there, and that border is much smaller, so another bonus.

  • Ron||

    I'm all for legalizing drugs but cartels won't go away, they are already making money with other illegal actions and will continue to do so to maintain their power. Criminal organizations have always existed even before drugs were outlawed. I even doubt that street gangs will diminish

  • Zeb||

    Supply and demand. Sure there will always be criminals and gangs. But you can't be a cartel without a product to catelize about. And there is a much smaller market for other illegal activities than there is for drugs.

    Some people will always be criminals. But some are in it because that's where the money is. Without drugs, gangs and cartels will have a lot fewer people willingly handing them money. Kidnapping, extortion and whatever else they might get into has a lot less willing customers.

    I don't think anyone is claiming that they would go away completely. But it would diminish their power and influence quite a bit if they weren't providing goods that lots of people actually want.

  • ||

    Btw, my nomination to scotus is either ken, jcr, or the guy in tuscon.....

  • ||

    Rc dean.

  • KevinP||

    A wall or fence doesn't have to stop 100% of border crossers to be effective. Israel implemented an effective border fence that has diminished its suicide bomber infiltration to almost zero. Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I.....ectiveness

    It is difficult to smuggle human beings compared to drugs, guns or contraband. They require food, water, air to breathe, have to relieve themselves periodically, can't be kept in hidden compartments for days on end, weigh 130 lbs or more and take up a lot of space.

    There are many ways in which illegals get taxpayer support. As just one example, every illegal alien's child is entitled to a public school education (even if the child is also illegal) and the average cost of this education is $10,500 per year (2012 figures). An illegal alien's child enrolled in first grade will cost the taxpayer $126,000 to graduate from high school.

    So a $15 billion wall will pay for itself if it deters 120,000 illegal aliens of child-bearing age from crossing the border illegally.

  • da journo||

    mexicans weigh 100 lbs or less

  • Zeb||

    "We stop the drugs"

    Yeah. That's going to happen. The problem in the past was we just weren't trying hard enough. With a wall the drug traffickers will just give it up and go legit.

  • Just Plain Brian||

    Walls are the reason we are able to keep all the drugs out of priso-...wait, bad example.

  • prstewart||

    FYI Tunnel detection technology does exist. Israel has using it quite successfully the past year. Do a bit more research next time.

  • Austrian Anarchy||

    So Reason still can't argue this topic from the position of Liberty. They always have to take some jive-assed Statist position. BTW, you people aren't even using "legalize" right. All you are doing is creating more profit centers for government.

  • Tionico||

    what, $12Bn for the stin king wall? We spend FIVE TIMES THAT PER YEAR to pretend we're ending the drug problem. SO... build that wall, dismantle DEA, and we're some $50Bn+/year to the good. And AMERICAN growers, processors, distributors, are now making their living on what the cartels and droguistas used to do.

  • Tionico||

    One more nail in the coffin would be repeal minimum wage laws. FedGov have NO authority to say a thing about wages anywhere. Let the free market dictate a wage that meets needs of both. When Min is $15.hr and no worker can earn that working the job, some will hire illegals. Most operate in "get by mode" anyway. When Charlie down the street in Anytown can be hired for 6 or 8 bux and glad for the fun money, he'll do it and learn how to work, the value of his time, perhaps even some more valuable skill, As he becomes worth more to the employer, he'll pay more, or the worker will go elsewhere with his experience and newfound skills. Meanwhile, the fence jumper will be at a disadvantage, as he will be a legal liability, not work for much less, and have limited skills.

  • MaleMatters||

    When it comes to supply and demand as applied to economics, conservatives understand the effect well. But one of biggest beefs about some of my conservative brethren is that too many Republicans don't seem to understand how supply and demand affects illegal drugs. They are blinded, rendered obtuse, by politics and the need for votes.

    An argument goes like this:

    "Why do we need a law against drugs?"

    "Because there has been an epidemic of drug use for decades."

    "So why not get rid of the law?"

    "There'd be an epidemic!"

    When a drug lord/dealer and his huge stash of drugs are seized, who cheers the most? His competitors, other drug lords and dealers.

    Republicans should ask them why.

  • rageon||

    Why stop with marijuana? Why not legalize all currently illegal drugs and put an end to the drug cartels' power once and for?

  • MichaelL||

    Sadly, we are preaching to the choir! Thinking out of the box is not the way of most people when it comes to fighting the dug war. At least, half still think that drug testing welfare recipients is smart, when studies have continue to show that it is not cost effective. The right is supposed to be into saving money! And conservative does not equate with taking money from, and food out of the mouths of, children that are living with poverty stricken parents! The people that are mad at those not intelligent enough to abuse addictive drugs are not likely going to admit that part of the problem lies within the never-ending drug war! Being a conservative, with a big classic liberal bent, puts me at odds with both sides of the argument!

  • generalisimo14||

    Mota accounts for about 80% of cartels profits. If that market were driven above ground (pun intended) I would assume our cartel problem would shrink by about 80%, as the funding for their operations withered. But there would be an 80% reduction of all that hot cash washing around, which has been used for who knows what depravities by the usual suspects. So while most 8th graders know the relative harms and benefits of weed, the DEA and US Gov still can't fathom it being anything but a Sched 1 narcotic. Which is surely based on rational analysis, not greed or malevolence.....right? The inanity of our betters keeps me from taking them seriously. If they can't even truthfully address this issue, how are they to be trusted with nuclear bombs and national security?

  • MikeP2||

    There is so much incoherent rage in the Reason writers these days that you can almost see the average IQ drop with each new article. A link to "Dalmia did the math". dear god, it makes my brain ache to see that.

    Shouldn't it be obvious what Trump is doing? He's walking in Reagan's footprints on immigration, FFS.

    The "wall", immigration reform, Sanctuary-city crackdown, and increased support for enforcement is all just a first step. Trump is fulfilling his campaign promises and calming the anti-illegal base.
    Once that is in order, Trump will push for an amnesty re-do. Much like Reagan's, provide a broad based amnesty with important criteria. Reagan's amnesty ended up deporting 25% of the illegals, didn't it?

    Trump will do exactly what everyone knows needs to be done, but no one has the political will to do it.

  • crufus||

    While we are legalizing pot, we could go ahead and legalize meth and heroin. It not like they're not getting in anyway.

  • Rational Exuberance||

    Reason's Shikha Dalmia did the math on The Wall this week, and the numbers are sobering.

    She can do math too? What a talented woman!

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