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What does the United States have to do with the Mexican drug war? More than you think. Over 22 million Americans age 12 and older use illegal drugs, and most don’t know or care where they come from. In many cases, U.S. drug addictions are fueling the drug cartels in Mexico, and contributing to the almost 50,000 people killed in drug wars over the last five years.

The number of deaths, however, doesn’t include the thousands who have disappeared, or the tens of thousands of children who have been orphaned by the violence. The U.S. needs to stop seeing itself as separate from Mexico’s drug wars and increase its efforts to end them, in part by rethinking its policies on drug legalization and regulation.

The connection of Mexican drug cartels to American drug use has been growing rapidly in a very short amount of time. The presence of Mexican cartels in U.S. cities has grown to more than 1,000 cities in 2010, up from 230 cities in 2008, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Not only that, but the National Drug Intelligence Center assesses with “high confidence” that Mexican-based transnational crime organizations “control distribution of most of the heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine available in the United States.” While the violence has remained mostly in Mexico, there have been investigations of abductions and killings that authorities suspect to be tied to cartels in Arizona, Georgia, Texas, Alabama, and other states.

These factors indicate that the U.S. is closely tied to the drug cartels of Mexico. Not only are we affected by the importing of drugs, but also by the effects on the Mexican population, which in turn affects immigration to the U.S. The more the violence across the border escalates, the more likely it is to increase on American soil, as well.

The cartels are driven by the immense profit of both producing their own drugs and also smuggling them from other parts of Latin America into the U.S. Authorities believe that the top organizations make $39 billion in wholesale profits annually. These profits would not be possible if the U.S. had better policies of regulating drug use in the within our borders.

A report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy last year, including former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, recommended that governments consider new policies for legalizing and regulating drugs as a way to deny profits to drug cartels. They urged the Obama administration to end “the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but do no harm to others.”

But the U.S. and Mexico refused to consider the recommendation. The U.S. government unwillingness to even look into a change in its policies is a mistake. The expansion of Mexican drug cartels in the U.S. is clear evidence that the tactics we have been using in recent years aren’t working. While the U.S. has opened new law enforcement and intelligence outposts across Mexico over the last several years, they have made little more than a dent in dismantling the cartels –– killing or capturing only about two dozen high-ranking and midlevel drug traffickers.

As Daniel Robelo, a research associate for the Drug Policy Alliance argues in the Los Angeles Times, the root cause that needs to be addressed by the U.S. is drug prohibition. He writes, “These murders are not drug-related, they are prohibition-related –– committed by cartels that were spawned by drug prohibition, that derive their power from the inflated profits of prohibited but highly demanded commodities, and that operate in an underground economy in which violence is routinely employed to resolve disputes or remove business opponents.”

Legalizing marijuana, which 50% of Americans already support according to a Gallup poll, would sharply cut into cartels’ profits and the amount the U.S. spends in tracking down, prosecuting, and jailing dealers who handle the drug. Regulation would be easier to manage and revenue could be used in education campaigns to prevent hard drug use and in the rehabilitation of addicts.

Instead, current U.S. policies towards drug use encourage the perpetuation of underground drug cartels and indirectly contribute to the unacceptable numbers of people dying just across the border. Ignoring a possible solution to drug wars in favor of ineffective policies that support the status quo should not be an option. Mexican drug wars are, at least in part, our problem, and we will need to make changes if we are going to solve them.

Photo Credit: Wonderlane