"If you're elected President, you will begin your term at the same time as Mexico's President elect, Enrique Peña Nieto," the question read. "He will inherit a drug war that has taken more than 65,000 lives in the past six years. If he was right here in front of you…would you ask him to continue with the same strategy as President Calderón or would you tell him that it's time to change the strategy to avoid more deaths?"
"I'd tell him that this is a problem that we share, that this is not [only] Mexico's problem." Romney replied. "This is also the United States of America's problem…we have a responsibility in this country to reduce drug usage."
"The president of the United States must make a priority of helping reduce demand in this country, and communicating to our young people, and older people, that when they use these illegal drugs, they are contributing to the deaths of people around the world," Romney said, before adding that he would also work to improve business ties with Mexico.
It might seem a bit surprising for a U.S. presidential candidate to admit that drug demand in the U.S. fuels drug violence in Mexico, but in fact, Romney's statements on drug policy are very much aligned with what the Obama administration has been saying for the past three years.
Earlier this year for example, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, [ONDCP] launched a new strategy that devotes around 40 percent [10.1billion] of the government's drug control budget to prevention and treatment programs.
The strategy, which is also calling for more flexible parole programs for those convicted of drug possession, has been touted by the ONDCP as a "third way," that "rejects the false choice between an enforcement-centric war on drugs and the extreme notion of drug legalization."
In May, ONDCP director Gil Kerlikowske -- also known as the "drug czar" -- claimed during a speech at the libertarian CATO Institute in Washington, D.C. that more had to be done to reduce the demand for drugs. But he went a step further than Romney did on Wednesday, and added in dramatic fashion, that the U.S. government could not "arrest its way out of the [drug] problem."
When it comes to owing up for the U.S. role in Mexican drug violence, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also been there and done that. During a trip to Mexico in 2009, she acknowledged that U.S. drug consumption fuels violence in Mexico.
The question that Romney and Obama need to be asked at these forums therefore, is whether they believe that drug violence can be eradicated while prohibitionists policies are kept in place. In a recent column on how the drug war has been left out of the campaigns, CATO institute researcher Ted Galen Carpenter notes:
"The reason the Mexican cartels exercise such worrisome clout is because they have vast financial resources at their disposal. By most estimates they control at least $35 billion a year of a $300 billion a year industry. Because drugs are illegal, the cartels enjoy a huge black-market premium. As much as 90 percent of the retail price of illegal drugs is a result of that illegality."
Could legalizing the sale and consumption of drugs, reduce the price of these goods and hit cartels in their pockets, where it hurts them the most?
The State Department and Mexico's Federal Government have pointed out that if drugs were legalized cartels would continue to terrorize law-abiding civilians by moving into other criminal businesses like kidnapping people, taxing businesses and human trafficking. One of the arguments for not legalizing drugs therefore, is that lifting prohibitions on these substances will not bring an end to violence.
But in Mexico, supporters of legalization will tell you that cartels are already engaged in kidnappings and other criminal industries, so why not focus law enforcement resources on activities like kidnapping, instead of having hundreds of cops –and dogs- on the ground trying to stop people from trafficking cocaine in the tires of a car?
This is a question that is increasingly being asked by the governments of Guatemala, Colombia and other Latin American countries, which recently tried to get the U.S. to talk about drug legalization strategies during the Summit of the Americas heads of state meeting in Cartagena.
During that forum, Obama said that legalization is not the answer to curbing drug violence, but that a "responsible, serious, dialogue," on drug policy should be held.
Obama, Romney and the Drug War Today
Obama was also asked about the drug war in Mexico during his appearance on Univision this Thursday. And like Romney on Wednesday, he said that the U.S. should place greater emphasis on reducing the demand for drugs at home.
The President also said that the U.S. must do a better job in cutting the illegal flow of weapons from the U.S. to Mexico, while upholding the rights of Americans who live near the border to own guns.
Obama continued to show his support for prohibitionist drug policies, by congratulating Mexican President Felipe Calderon for the "courage" he has shown in taking on drug cartels in that country.
Calderon has been harshly criticized in Mexico for the high death toll that has resulted from his efforts to confront drug cartels with the Mexican military, with many analysts in that country speculating that the high rates of violence during his administration, cost Calderon's party the election during this year's presidential contest.
It does not seem like drug policy will determine the outcome of the election in the U.S. however, especially if you consider that both candidates have a very similar stance on the issue.