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Experimenting with drugs is not as ‘innocuous’ as it may seem

10,780 dead and counting.

That number, undoubtedly far outdated by now, is the casualty count in Mexico’s drug war from December 2006 through May 2009, according to The Associated Press. It captures, in the clearest terms possible, the most important storyline of the inter-American drug war: The American drug fascination carries steep consequences for those in less fortunate parts of the world.

College students would do well to consider their own lives and choices in light of these realities.

Too often, students defend their own experimentation with drugs on the grounds that such use only affects them. Therefore, the reasoning goes, their use of allegedly ‘innocuous’ substances such as marijuana is perfectly justifiable.

In an alternate universe, this could be an intriguing view. But in this one, it is dangerously wrong.

Particularly at Duke University, we like to talk a big game on social responsibility. It’s the impulse that motivates action on the various humanitarian causes students commit themselves to, both during the school year and during summer trips overseas.

Yet, according to Tom Szigethy, associate dean and director of the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention Center, the 2008 American College Health Association Survey for Duke showed that 26.4 percent of students have sampled marijuana at some point. Moreover, at least 12.8 percent of Duke men and 8.3 percent of women have used the drug with some frequency in the previous 30 days, Szigethy said.

The disparity with Duke’s social responsibility ethic is jarring. Although these numbers are lower than the national average (14.5 percent of students using drugs in the previous 30 days), we can do better.

This belief in the ‘innocuousness’ of marijuana use is especially tragic before the sheer ugliness of the cartels that supply the American drug market. More than drugs, these cartels traffic in fear. Acts of carnage are designed to horrify the public and pressure elected officials to cave in the drug war, so that they might see a respite from the constant bloodshed. Beheadings, hangings and mass executions – with mutilated bodies left strewn in streets and school yards – are commonplace in parts of Mexico. Revenge killings have specifically targeted children of police officers and government officials prosecuting the war. Other times, civilians are simply caught in the crossfire.

The inconvenient truth is that all of this, from the weapons to the organizational costs, is paid for by the American drug habit. No discussion of the drug wars in Latin America is complete without a serious investigation of the role of consumer demand in this country. The tremendous profit margins presented by the overwhelming U.S. demand for marijuana plays a significant role in creating the incentives for drug cartels to bring their business north.

To be sure, the link between individual drug use and Latin American murderers is ‘long and windy,’ said Capt. Ray Taylor of the Durham Police Department’s Special Operations division. ‘[Drugs go] from one person to another, [and] by the time it gets to someone on your campus who is going to use it, it has changed hands [many] times.’

Still, Tayor noted the influence of organized crime. ‘Obviously, the drugs have to come from somewhere,’ he said. ‘You can imagine where the drugs must come from’hellip;. Marijuana from South America or Mexico or homegrown stuff. It takes some organization to create a supply network to get that actually up here. Just common sense tells you that organized crime is going to be involved in there.’

Many will retort that the drug market thrives because of the legal status of drugs such as marijuana, by far the No. 1 drug used by Americans, according to The AP. Now, debates over legalization of drugs are legitimate and have a place in the public discourse. But they are irrelevant when discussing the ethics of recreational marijuana use. Whining about legalization is an excuse, not an argument.

The bottom line is that drugs are illegal now and any discussion of their ethics must be grounded in the universe of current realities and consequences. Individual drug use feeds into a demand stream that supplies money and resources to some truly horrible criminals. These traffickers commit gruesome acts of violence and destabilize governments in countries beyond our day-to-day attention span.

Whether or not students use drugs with full knowledge of these consequences, the simple fact is that they are facilitating the activity of drug cartels.

Actions have consequences, even when inconvenient. No drug-induced high is worth another dead Latin American child.

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