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'Dealing Death and Drugs' delivers strong case for legal weed

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When Juárez cartel gangster Jose Antonio "El Diego" Acosta Hernandez was arrested last summer he had an estimated 1,500 murders under his belt operating in a city where violent death comes fast and furious. Authorities estimate he had dozens of gunmen under his leadership in the border city that has earned the distinction as one of the deadliest on the planet. The warring Juárez and Sinoloa cartels are blamed for thousands of murders battling for the lucrative crossing to the U.S. drug-buying public. And while the violence hasn't crossed the border in a significant way (El Paso is still considered one of the safest in the U.S.), it has expanded opportunities for others with murder on their mind in Juárez, according to recently published Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the U.S. and Mexico. Women continue to be tortured, raped, and murdered — a wave of violence that has also claimed thousands of victims since NAFTA delivered a rapid wave of increased industrialization to the border city in the 1990s. As the price of a human life plummeted, a Juárez representative of the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission was quoted on the subject of the new opportunity killings: "Now we estimate that there must be 4,500 armed people who are prepared to kill. Many of them 14- and 15-year-old kids who hate the guy who stole their girlfriend, who hate the father who yelled at them, the teacher who flunked them, who hate the rival gang, and who, on top of that, have learned to kill."

Any fan of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire should already know that prohibition creates violence. What many in the States overlook (but the authors of Dealing Death, former El Paso City Representative Beto O'Rourke and current Rep Susie Byrd, home in on with an accountant's certainty), is that the blood being shed in Mexico is not only about narcotics. In fact, with full control over the supply chain, cartel profits from marijuana may rival earnings from Colombian-born cocaine. Mexican officials believe pot profits may be as high as $3 billion a year: while cocaine offers an estimated eight-fold return for the cartels after expenses, a pound of marijuana purchased for $23 from a farmer in Mexico can fetch $550 in Chicago — a 23-fold value increase.

In recent years, cartels have begun to cut the risk of crossing the border by farming marijuana in U.S. national parks, bringing automatic rifles, IEDs, and illegal fertilizers with them. Perhaps it was this rising violence over an otherwise innocuous weed that helped push the number of U.S. residents favoring legalization of the plant to an all-time high of 50 percent.

It makes sense that those with a truly front row seat to the destruction of the Drug War would give birth to a treatise on marijuana legalization ($48 billion a year in federal, state, and local dollars is too much for a drug war that returns so little). Yet even in this crucible of violence arguments for alternative responses aren't tolerated, as O'Rourke (now challenging U.S. Representative Silvestre Reyes for his congressional seat) and his colleagues discovered when they attempted to pass a resolution in 2009 calling for an "open, honest, national debate" on the topic. O'Rourke writes in the introduction that Representative Reyes wanted the matter put away. "He asked us not to move forward with the resolution and delivered a thinly veiled threat: failure to do so would result in the withholding of stimulus funds for our city, the third poorest in the United States." The once unanimous Council crumbled. The killings across the river continued. The all-important stimulus kept flowing.

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