Monday, August 2, 2010

Why I support drug legalization

The United States consumers more drugs than any other country in the world. Proudly and valiantly, we are spending billions of dollars every year and costing thousands of lives in a campaign to forcefully stop people from trading and using drugs. With this approach, we have not decreased drug use at all; what he have done is wreaked havoc in developing countries who have to deal with the large criminal organizations that arise in the trade. Our efforts would be much more successful if we made drugs legal and spent our money on education, prevention, and rehabilitation than on trying to eradicate the trade that cannot be eradicated. Please, read on.

Colombia and the US spend more than $2 billion every year to crack down on Colombian drug production using physical force and patrolling. By arresting producers, spraying poison on crops, and patrolling borders, they have curbed production by a little more every year. But this reduction in supply doesn't matter one bit.

Every bit of progress we make in reducing production in Colombia simply raises the price of drugs and incentivizes people in other countries to make a killing by growing drugs. It's no surprise that as drug production has slowed in Colombia, it has increased in Bolivia and Peru. Even if you spend half the national budget policing all of South America and prevented anyone from growing drugs, the price of drugs would skyrocket and people all over the world would start making a killing off of producing drugs. If there is a demand, there will always be a supply.

Drug use in the US has barely been affected, despite it being illegal and despite spending billions of dollars fighting those who trade drugs. In 2009, 42% of US high schoolers said they could get drugs within 24 hours or less, an all time high.

The entire drug cartel war that is hammering Mexico's stability and economy is the result of American drug use. Because drugs are illegal and therefore very lucrative (wholesale drug sellers are estimated to earn between $13.6 billion to $48.4 billion annually), those who trade them become extremely wealthy and are able to buy weapons, bribe entire police departments with millions of dollars to allow them to continue trading, and violently defend their trading routes. The Mexican government and people are the ones who have to face this mess, and it is costing billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Mexicans killed because of drug cartel violence:

2,477 killed in 2007
6,290 killed in 2008
7,724 killed in 2009
6,768 killed to date in 2010

The US Defense Department funded a two year study which found that the use of the armed forces to interdict drugs coming into the United States would have minimal or no effect on cocaine traffic and might, in fact, raise the profits of cocaine cartels and manufacturers. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, after reviewing the efficiency of the actions taken by the Colombian government for more than 20 years, has called for the coke consuming countries - mostly in Europe and North America to take their share of responsibility and reduce demand for cocaine. As I have lived in Monterrey and seen the horrible violence that the vast majority of innocent Mexicans have to dealt with (two students at my own university got caught in the middle of a firefight and were killed this March, and hundreds of others in the city), I have felt guilty as a neighbor for being from the country that is causing it.

I know it sounds crazy, but just imagine how things might be if drugs were legal. They would still be grown and imported (just as other harmful substances like tobacco), but not by millionare narco-terrorists using machine guns and grenades to get them across the border. Peaceful cocaine farmers would grow them just like tobacco, and they would be put on boats and trains and checked at the customs office, just like any other good, and taxed, earning the government a hefty income instead of an enormous expense fighting the trade. A 2008 study by Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron estimated that legalizing drugs would inject $76.8 billion a year into the U.S. economy — $44.1 billion from law enforcement savings, and at least $32.7 billion in tax revenue.

Now for the big question: would legalizing drugs increase usage in the United States? The Netherlands has a largely legalized policy on drugs, and their drug usage rates are about average for Europe (despite some tricky statistics that try to show otherwise--here's the hard data). Portugal decriminalized drug use in 2001 and has significantly lowered drug use and nearly doubled treatment rates. (great report here) Why is this?
  • Increased availability=little impact on usage (people who want drugs can already get them easily)
  • Decrease in price of drugs=increase in usage
  • Billions of dollars spent on prevention and education and rehab instead of policing=decrease in usage
Study after study finds the same thing: that we need to attack the demand for drugs instead of the supply. The panel of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy commission concluded that the countries involved in this war should remove the "taboos" and re-examine the anti-drug programs. Latin American governments have followed the advice of the U.S. to combat the drug war, but the policies have had little effect. The commission made some recommendations to President Obama to consider new policies, such as legalization of marijuana and to treat drug use as a public health problem and not as a security problem. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs states it is time to seriously consider drug decriminalization and legalization.

In the 90's, the government paid for a study by the Rand Drug Policy Research Center. The study concluded that money spend on prevention and rehab was 8 times more effective at reducing drug use than money spend fighting the drug trade. But Clinton's drug czar decided to go the traditional route, increased funding for law enforcement instead. Funding was increased even more under Bush.

California is expected to legalize marujana this fall, and to that I give my salute. It sounds shocking and it's taboo to say you support legalization of drugs, but being pro-drug legalization doesn't mean you support drug use. It is simply a vote for a far less expensive, far less deadly, and far more effective solution.

(see also Legalization of Alcohol, Prohibition)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Monterrey vs. Hurricane Alex

"Rio Seco has water in it?? LET'S GO RAFTING!!!"

Such was my first reaction when I heard that the riverbed that cuts through the entire city of Monterrey, dry for 22 years, was pumping full blast. You see, Monterrey is encircled on three sides by mountains, and when Hurricane Alex dropped a year's worth of rain in three days (27 inches), the mountains funneled it all right down into the heart of Monterrey. Here it is coming from the mountains (I've driven up this canyon before, it's like Parley's Way):

If you didn't just say, "Woah", smack yourself and take another look. Woah. This is heading straight for the city. And this is just one canyon.

Justin Wright, my companiero in the house, woke me up at about 7:00 AM to tell me there was no power, no phones, and he had a flight leaving at 9:15 clear on the other side of town and his taxi wasn't gonna make it. So into the Honda Civic we went to brave the storm.

The main freeway had already been eaten away by the river, but we miraculously made it to the airport in time, though this required a fair amount of off-roading through debris and potholes. We crossed the river on a high bridge on the way to the airport, but didn't get a good look at it. At the airport, Justin thanked me and wished me luck getting back. I figured it wouldn't be too hard... just go the same way we came, right? But roads that were fine one hour ago were now strewn with rocks, mud, and rivers, and masses of cars were squeezing through detours like a flock of panicked sheep. I watched a couple of jeeps right in front of me make a run for it across a slow mudslide and just sunk in up to the doors.

Eventually I reached the river. WOOOOAAAAAAAAH. This was the bridge I was supposed to cross:

View from a helicopter:

I stood there with my jaw dropped for a good 30 minutes before asking around about what bridges were still good. I was told that just another 15 minutes up the river there was another bridge. When I got there, it was only half a bridge. I began to feel as Littlefoot once did after the Great Earthshake, standing across a great divide with no way across. I wandered away discouraged and frightened. I was never going to get home! But then, all of a sudden, I looked up and saw a cloud morph into the shape of my mother, who spoke to me in a booming echoey voice and told me never to give up until I got home. (end side plot)

Ok, actually, I was loving the excitement. I stood in a 20 minute line at a gas station to grab some crackers and V8 for breakfast and kept driving up the river until I found a bridge to cross. There was plenty of sightseeing on the way:

Wish I had footage of the really big water I saw. There were enormous wave trains that morphed and moved around the river. I saw a hole that looked just like Little Niagra in high water. And check out the size of the standing wave at 0:23 of this video!

Eventually, I did find a large, stable bridge to cross, and arrived at home in the afternoon without a scratch to me or the car. ("James" does mean "protected", you know). Miraculously, less than 10 people died in this city of 6 million, though hundreds of thousands of people are still without running water and electricity. This incredible two minute video of the city is a must see:

Some things inspire me with grand language and epic descriptions, but all I can say after seeing this in downtown Monterrey is "wooaaah." What say ye?

Sunday, May 2, 2010


This is a long post, with no pictures. But I want you to read every word of it!

It has been said that the key to success is not so much to be remarkable yourself, but rather to surround yourself with remarkable people. I am convinced that in this city of 6 million inhabitants, I could be living in the home of the most extraordinary person in the entire region. Paul Ahlstrom's the name, and venture capital is the game.

A brief description of venture capital (VC): People who want to start new companies often have incredible ideas, but lack funding to start their businesses. No one will give you a million dollar loan to start a tech company that might not even work. Venture capitalists will. They gather millions of dollars from people who want to invest in such companies, sit and listen to entrepreneurs pitch their ideas, and pick only the best of the best to fund. The entrepreneurs come in and have to convince the VC's that their idea will work and be wildly successful, and only then will the VC's bestow them with funding (like on the TV show "Shark Tank"). In exchange, the entrepreneur must give the VC's a portion ownership of the new company (let's say 25%), which means that if the company makes it big, 25% of the profits will belong to the VC's.

This process of vigilant screening and sifting through hundreds of ideas yields the freshest, most innovative new companies around, and in the US has been a key driver of the rapid economic progress we have made in the last few decades. It encourages innovation, creating new products and services that advance the quality of life, and creates employment as these new and growing companies hire on workers. In fact, companies that were started with VC funding account for 10% of the jobs in the United States last year!

Sadly, opportunities to get funding like this are really only available in highly developed countries. A Mexican with a great idea will only be able to fund his new company if he comes from a very wealthy family and can talk them into a big loan. This means slower economic growth, less innovation, and less employment.

Enter Paul Ahlstrom. Paul has been a very successful VC in Utah for the last 15 years. He had made so many home-run investments that he easily could have rode the wave and lived comfortably in Utah for the rest of his life. But Paul is not one to coast; he is a bull. He decided to start the first VC fund in Mexico. The motive? Well, he's not here in search of fortune- he already had that in Utah. Paul is here to give a hand up to the Mexican people. He found a fantastic Mexican partner, sold everything he owned in Utah and move his family to Monterrey. I wish I could paint a picture of the enormity of the task. First, convincing investors to lend you the $100 million or so to invest in a country with some amount of economic and political instability. Second, doing it half the time in another language. Third, single handedly teaching an entire community how VC works and what they need to do. The policy makers, universities, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and investors here have never done VC, and they all play a critical role.

To help unite this budding VC community and instruct them on what has to happen, Paul organized the first ever Monterrey Venture Capital Conference. Over 200 leaders in government, business, and entrepreneurship attended, and it was a smashing success. Speakers were brought in from successful VC communities in the states to speak on how they build their industries, politicians spoke on what policy change had to happen, etc. But no doubt the best moment of the conference was when mighty Paul Ahlstrom took the mic. When Paul opens his mouth, he commands attention from every person within the sound of his voice. With his fearlessness, experience, and talent, he is charging this cause forward and everyone is jumping on behind him and helping to push. There are now hordes of talented, powerful people working to make this a reality, but there is no doubt that Paul Ahlstrom is the living, burning soul behind it all.

Somehow I have had the good fortune to be one of those people. When they interviewed me in November for an internship position, I was a lowly undergrad student who didn't speak a lick of Spanish (except for the basics, such as "Help, help! My grandmother's on fire!!!"), but something worked in my favor and they let me on board. What a joy it is to be surrounded with such people! I haven't much to offer them (although Paul has taken a liking to my guitar playing, and I have found myself as dinner entertainment at parties with more bodygaurds than guests). I do not know that I will spend my career in VC, but here I am watching a master in something even more important: how to be remarkable.

Oh yeah: Paul is letting me live in his basement this summer. How do I deserve this?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

And what a March it was!

Editor's note: The events of my last post were 90% true.


1. Men: When nature is calling, and you're looking for a restroom in a hurry, and you run into the public library, and you look at the floor map, and see the restroom marked "M", remember that "M" in Mexico stands for "Moheres", or "Women". I didn't recognized that, but I sure did recognize the WOMAN I saw upon entering the restroom! Men, you want "H" for "Hombres".

2. Why do your friends gather around so excitedly when they present you with your beautiful birthday cake? They're going to smash it in your face.

(How do you make the photos go in between paragraphs? Please refer to them in reverse order as they fit the story...)

Yes, I was lucky to spend this birthday traveling through the Huasteca Potosina with 26 of my dear friends from the mountaineering club, or "Trepacerros". We gathered in front of the school, with all the good vibrations that are always in the air when you load up a bus full of friends, food, and climbing gear.

Over four days, we canyoneered through the beautiful Hausteca, i.e. a real life Pandora (Avatar planet), sometimes floating, sometimes jumping, sometimes rapelling, and always having a great time. I won the make-a-pose-while-you-jump-off-a-waterfall contest.

On day 2, we were following the river through beautiful, open country, when all of a sudden the horizon disappeared and we arrived at a tremendous, towering cascade. It was the grandest fall I have ever stood atop.

My senses were simply overwhelmed on all fronts--the relentless thunder of the once tranquil waters, the mist rocketing up hundreds of feet and shooting past my chest, the thrill of standing unrestrained peering into the deep abyss. My thoughts were pure poetry as I absorbed it all, and I turned to my friend Marc, who was just approaching the edge. "Marc, isn't it incredible?!?", I remarked. He took one look and delivered his verdict: "Verga!" (translation: mother*$%@!)! During the next 2 minutes, the sight evoked from him about every Spanish cussword I know, and nothing else. I couldn't stop laughing. Mom, it was like an adult version of the story of Jake and Ann at Lake Powell.

The next morning, we awoke an hour before sunrise and trekked up the side of a mountain, and stopped for a rest beside a medium-sized mountain lake. Between my grogginess and partially-developed Spanish abilities, I had no idea what was going on, and sat disgruntled in my morning stupor. As the light gradually appeared, however, I realized that the darkness had played tricks on my sleepy eyes... we weren't at a lake at all--it was an enormous vertical cave, right there in the side of the mountain! 1,200 feet deep, do you believe that? The photos can't capture even part of the spectacle. (It's called "Sotana de las Huahuas", or swallow cave, and you can see it in Planet Earth on the cave episode.)

We waited there for about an hour, the sun still behind the mountains, when all of a sudden we heard a loud whooshing sound from the bottom of the pit. Everyone hushed and peered down. I couldn't see anything at first, but then the floor seemed to be moving... and for the next half hour we watched a seemingly endless flock of swallows ascend out of the hole, which they do every morning. This is not the lazy ascent of the falcon, however, as the swallows are to small to glide and there is no wind to prop them up. The only way to climb the 400 meters is to fly around and around to gain enough speed to get to the top! So this flock of I'm going to say at least 40,000 birds turns into a living tornado, slowly climbing higher and higher. I absolutely could not believe my eyes. This photo is taken of the laggers... at one point they were so thick you could hardly see the bottom. Click here to see a youtube video of it... but again it gives the experience no justice. To see it in person is something out of this world.

Too much swimming in chilly water and lack of sleep on the trip left me with a nasty cold, but it was worth it ten times over. My friends are so kind to take such good care of me. Andale!


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It's a Party in Monterrey

Though I arrived at the Monterrey Municipal Airport with high hopes, doubts lingered in my mind, like, "Will I fit in socially? Will I be able to make friends?" I took a cab from the airport and saw the city for the first time. The driver pointed to our right, and there I saw Cerro de la Silla, the icon of Monterrey. I couldn't believe I was moving here without knowing a soul! To make matters worse, the burritos I had just eaten were causing problems in my digestive system, and I longed for a home-cooked meal. Just when I felt overwhelmed, however, the driver changed the radio station, and the Eagles song was on! Allow me to restate this fact to emphasize it's importance: the Eagles song was on.

Without thinking twice, I found myself dancing in the taxi, with my hands above my head, and all my nervousness was gone. My head was nodding, as if to say, "Yes!", my hips swaying, as if to express confidence and enjoyment. With my hands up in the air, and the music filling the air, I realized that everything would be alright--it's a party in Monterrey.

A few days later, I arrived at a party with hundreds of local students. I had previously been unaware of the cultural norms in Mexico, and arrived in casual clothing unfit for a party of this nature. As I entered the room and saw everyone in their fine outfits, I could feel everyone noting my interesting style, and concluding that I was indeed foreign to the area. I attempted to meet some other students, but this proved to be more difficult without the support my "homies" have provided for me in social settings previously. This was no Provo party--all I could see were strange drinks and styles. Feeling out of place, I was about to return to my residence when I heard a familiar sound--the Bon Jovi song was on! The familiarity of the music unified me with those around me. The Bon Jovi song was on!

Again, I found myself lost in the moment; my hands high above my head, shouting and singing with my classmates, my troubles fleeing into the night. My head was nodding, as if to say, "Yes!", my hips swaying, as if to express confidence and enjoyment. With my hands up in the air, and the music filling the air, I realized that everything would be alright--it's a party in Monterrey.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Though I'm having one heck of a time down here, the sight of Utah's canyons just calls to my soul. I've got wanderin' bones, but there's no doubt that the West is my home. I just feel right where I belong in that gritty red rock and feelin' that dry Utah breeze. And while I adorn my Ipod with all breeds of music, the refrains of the old west sing to me like nothing else. When I hear Gordon Lightfoot or the Sons of the San Juaquin, I feel like I just came in from playing in the snow and can smell mama's vegetable stew.

Well, Utah aside, what a time it's been down here! In Monterrey, I:

  • am teaching free english and guitar lessons
  • have become a regular member of the hiking club
  • play basketball in the park by my apartment
  • only study the day before tests

And the best is yet to come, that's for sure. Learning a language is challenging, but there's no feeling like hearing yourself rattle off your thoughts in a strange tounge. I love it. At this point (March '10) I can converse very well one on one, but I don't usually catch a lot of what locals say to eachother. But that's normal. Oh man I love it.

Starting a social life from scratch in a new culture sure has its ups and downs (as life anywhere does). To get yourself into the culture you have to be persistantly extroverted, or you end up living in the country without being noticed. It can make you feel so awkward and out of place, and want nothing more than to go back to where you are understood and known and loved. But more than that, it brings blossoming friendships, engaging converstations, and the discovery of a new world. You have those moments when all the hard work pays off, like when you're in deep in conversation with Mariana Fernandez over candlelight at a salsa club, in pure beautiful Spanish. Wahoo!!

Last night I was teaching my good friend Erika some guitar in a park by a river. It had just rained, the moon was rising, and we were all alone on a bench on the pier. The songs of Alanis Morisette filled the air, and we were having a grand old time, when all of a sudden, the music was interuppted by a thundering chant from the river: "BE-SO! BE-SO! BE-SO! BE-SO!" I turned to see about 30 middle-aged men putting by in a boat, pounding their fists on the aluminum and chanting at us. You see, "beso" means "kiss her!" The crowd erupted as I laid a fat one on her rosy Mexican cheek. Oh, Mexico! I fit right in here.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

On blogging

In the name of personal expression, entertainment, and just keeping in touch, I, James Alexander de los Santos Rodriguez Marshall, am proud to present my first-ever blog, Musings of a Mexican Bluebird. I pledge my best efforts to make it worth your time.