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How U.S. Thirst For Drugs Fuels Mexico's Violence

The violence that’s roiling Mexico can at least be partly blamed on our own citizens. Even top levels of the federal government now say it’s our demand for pot and cocaine that has sparked deadly turf battles at the border. In the first part of a new Fronteras, Changing America Series on the Drug War at Home, Peter O’Dowd reports on this country’s thirst for drugs and explores just how much Americans love to get high.


Let’s start with numbers 22 million. That’s how many Americans use illegal drugs regularly. It’s 9 percent of the population over age 12 — equivalent to every man, woman and child in Australia. And last year, several thousand users and former users came through here.

Every day at a drug screening center in Phoenix, Israel Cano watches a line of men pee into a plastic bottle. This center works with Arizona’s criminal justice system to keep tabs on probation and parole violations. Its lab tests several million samples a year. The people here are America’s typical users. Most are men. Marijuana is the drug of choice.

“Hello, sir. Please put your name on the bottle. Thank you,” Cano tells one.  

Barbara Zugor has worked here since 1977. She occasionally gets philosophical about her job.

“This is the gut of life, isn’t it?”

Why in 2009, for instance, did almost 17 million Americans smoke pot habitually? Why did 7 million abuse prescription drugs? A million and a half ingest cocaine. Why is America a country of illicit drug consumers?

Zugor explained, “Now, that’s the $64 billion question. And we’re all trying to figure out why is that? And until we do there will probably be drugs and drug abuse in this country.”

Even drug dealers think about this.

“There’s a ripple effect to everything,” the unidentified man said.     

“Everyone who smokes weed is like a crack addict. That’s their fix. That’s their drug. And they’re going to call your phone,” he explained.

I won’t tell you his name. For obvious reasons. But the demand for the former dealer’s product was constant. Before getting busted in Phoenix, he bought up to five pounds of Mexican pot at time, and made about 2-thousand bucks a week selling it. He sold to students. To firemen. Even to military police.

“People in their mid-30s, mid-40s on up,” he said.

The government believes the entire illicit drug trade in this country brings between 18 and $39 billion a year to the cartels. For pot, it’s an ounce for 60 bucks. A pound at $425. And that’s for commercial-grade in Phoenix. Weak stuff. Bobby Brown, it’s called, packed into bricks and shipped through tunnels, or on trucks and on airplanes from Mexico.

“Mexicans are getting a bad wrap. Yeah, a lot of the stuff is coming across the border, but it’s our demand that is bringing it here. If you stop the demand, you stop the flow,” the dealer explained.

Now, that is remarkable. A drug dealer echoing the Obama Administration.

“Mexico wouldn’t have quite the level of problems, ((and a lot of other countries wouldn’t have either)) if we could reduce our own demand,” said Gil Kerlikowski, the U.S. Drug Czar.

He says it is possible to reduce consumption. Take cocaine, for example. Its use has fallen the past several years. The government isn’t sure why. It could be the 360-million American dollars spent to help Mexico fight its drug war since 2008. But if that were the case, there should be less pot getting across as well. Not true. Pot use is steady in this country, supplied by an undiminished flow from Mexico and augmented by the cartel’s new domestic production. Jonathan Caulkins studies the drug trade at Carnegie Mellon University.

“The overall story is that the price pot per hour of intoxication is definitely going down,” Caulkins said.

Regardless of cost, the majority of pot and cocaine still comes through Mexico. And do users here ever wonder if they’re playing a role in this violent drug war? 

“That’s a really good question,” said Phoenix Police Sgt. Tommy Thompson.

Thompson explained, “I think by the time a person is addicted to drugs, they don’t care where they came from, or what are the consequences to bring the drugs to their table.”

Again, our former drug dealer agrees on this point. He says his clients were so eager to get high that even the ones who openly worried about feeding the cartel’s bottom line — and it wasn’t uncommon — always ended up forking over another 60 bucks or an ounce of Mexican weed.

“It bothered me to the core, but I did it anyway because the money was good and it had been an identity thing for so long,” the unidentified dealer said.

And so he sold more. His clients bought more. And in January, he got caught. Now every week a man at the drug screening center in Phoenix watches him pee into a plastic cup.

This story was produced by the KJZZ’s Changing America Desk, a collaborative effort of stations in the Southwest. See the original web version.