The algebra of desire

It’s getting dangerous out there in the hills and hollows of the Northstate. In recent weeks, sheriff’s deputies have shot and killed four men—two in the Feather Falls area of Butte County and two more in Shasta County—at the site of large marijuana plantations, and last week a hiker walking north of Chico came upon a pot patch booby-trapped with pipe bombs and loaded shotguns.

The four dead men were Mexican nationals guarding the plots with automatic rifles. A Mexican drug cartel was paying them $200 a day or more, a fortune to a Mexican laborer. No doubt they were planning to send much of the money home, as most undocumented workers do. Now they’ll never go home.

It would be simplistic to say that marijuana is the cause of this new and frightening level of violence. Marijuana is just a product in a complex industry in which its price—higher than that of gold—is created by consumer demand and the prohibition against it. Mexican drug cartels are growing pot in Northern California because it’s easier and cheaper than smuggling it into the country from Mexico. For them it’s a calculated business risk. And they have plenty of money to hire impoverished laborers to do the dirty work—and die—for them.

This is the flawed algebra of the drug war. By spending billions to eradicate illicit drugs at their source, we drive up their price, making the drug trade more and more profitable—and, with the arrival of the cartels, more and more dangerous. In the meantime, we fill our prisons with millions of small-time drug dealers, spending billions of dollars to get and keep them there, while the capos of the cartels live in luxuriant splendor.

Yes, sheriff’s deputies dug up a lot of plants from those two grows where the four men died. But it won’t make a dent in the marijuana supply, and next year others will be back in the hills, armed to the hilt and growing more pot for the millions of Americans who use the herb.

We’ve been fighting this drug war for more than 30 years, with no success. It’s time to recalculate the algebra.