U.S. illegal-drug market fuels Mexican cartels

NEW YORK (AP) — The Mexican drug cartels battling viciously to expand and survive have a powerful financial incentive: Across the border to the north is a market for illegal drugs unsurpassed for its wealth, diversity and voraciousness.

Homeless heroin addicts in big cities, “meth heads” in Midwest trailer parks, pop culture and sports stars, teens smoking marijuana with their baby-boomer parents in Vermont — in all, 46 percent of Americans 12 and older have indulged in the often-destructive national pastime of illicit drug use.

This array of consumers is providing a vast, recession-proof, apparently unending market for the Mexican gangs locked in a drug war that has killed more than 10,780 people since December 2006. No matter how much law enforcement or financial help the U.S. government provides Mexico, the basics of supply and demand prevent it from doing much good.

“The damage done by our insatiable demand for drugs is truly astounding,” said Lloyd Johnston, a University of Michigan researcher who oversees annual drug-use surveys.

The latest federal figures show that 114 million Americans have used illegal drugs at some point — and 20 million are current users.

Marijuana is by far the No. 1 drug, sampled by 100 million Americans, including nearly half of high school seniors. But more than 35 million Americans have used cocaine at some point and 34 million have taken LSD or other hallucinogens.

“It’s a drug dealer’s dream — sell it in a place where he can make the most money for the risk taken,” said Dr. H. Westley Clark, director of the federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.

“There’s a tremendous amount of denial until you’re face to face with it,” Clark added. “A substance abuser can be anybody. Everybody is at risk.”

The Mexican cartels are eager to feed this ravenous appetite. Once used mostly to transship drugs from South America, Mexico is now a major producer and distributor; its gangs control cocaine networks in many U.S. cities and covertly grow marijuana on U.S. public lands.

For now, the Mexican government is fighting the cartels and working with U.S. authorities who have promised to stop the southbound flow of weapons and cash — but all parties are aware of the role played by the U.S. market.

“When the U.S. government turns up the pressure a lot, then is when you see a return to the old formula of saying [to Americans], ‘You also have corruption, you consume the drugs, you’re the biggest drug consumer in the world,’” said Jose Luis Pineyro, a sociologist at Mexico’s Autonomous Metropolitan University.

Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief recently appointed by President Barack Obama as the U.S. drug czar, said the Mexicans “make an excellent point.”

“Our drug abuse causes problems elsewhere — our per-capita consumption is very high,” said Kerlikowske, who argues that reducing demand through education and treatment is as vital as border interdictions in quelling Mexico’s drug violence.

Federal surveys reveal cyclical trends in drug abuse — but the number of lifetime users keeps growing. Overall abuse rates were highest in the 1970s, declined through the early ’90s, went back up, and now seem to have stabilized over the past six years.

Studies of youth drug use in Western Europe show a few countries with serious problems, but overall, a far lower portion of young people there are abusing drugs than in America. Elsewhere around the world, drug use also is widespread, though data is generally not as thorough as in the U.S.

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