Though one commenter thought I'd worded the question in a way that biased answers toward the final one, I was actually testing a different theory with that particular query. I'm increasingly coming to believe that Mexican drug cartels, their US-side organizations and the potential, Mexico and Colombia-style corruption and violence they bring with them represent the most important, if not the most immediate negative effect of illegal drugs.
Which is the biggest public safety threat related to illegal drugs in America?
- Detrimental effects on users' health and lifestyle (8%)
- Crimes by drug users (14%)
- Organized crime gangs transporting and distributing drugs (18%)
- Mexican drug cartels (3%)
- Damage done by overincarceration and reduced civil liberties related to the Drug War (55%)
It turns out almost none of you agree with me. That's okay - all of us are guessing. However, my own best guess is that it's primarily the US-side infrastructure of Mexican cartels - not necessarily "Big American Drug Bosses" - who already supply regional US distribution systems to get most illegal drugs to retail markets (though I do not discount the possibility that US interests may siphon off some of the proceeds occasionally for their own side projects). Given the level of violence and corruption those groups create south of the border, it seems only a matter of time before such tactics escalate in the United States, and Texas is the front line.
To me, that's the biggest public safety threat facing this state in the 21st century.
As for detrimental effects on users, alcohol as a societal problem ranks as a much bigger concern to me, and without delving into the research pro and con in this post, the effects of marijuana use in particular IMO are often overstated. A larger number of readers (14%) were concerned with crimes committed by drug users, presumably to obtain money to buy more drugs. I agree this is a problem, and it's probably the one that receives the most media attention (oddly enough). Similarly, sometimes drunken homeless folks will steal copper from construction sites to sell to buy booze. But there's a reason more people commit crimes to buy illegal drugs than to purchase alcohol, and IMO the main reason is that black markets keep the price of drugs artificially high, while the price of legal booze, even when heavily taxed, remains relatively cheap.
A few more readers - 18% - thought the main public safety threat came from street level dealers and regional criminal networks, while the majority believe that collateral consequences of the Drug War are a bigger public safety threat than any of these others.
Keep in mind, I think all of these things are public safety threats - my only question was which is the biggest, and perhaps readers are correct that the collateral consequences of the drug war, of the choices on the list, currently causes the most harm. But for my money, the alarming growth of Mexican "mega-cartels" and their mass infiltration into the United States represents a threat not just to public safety but to the overall integrity of US political institutions and the justice system.
I believe we're at a crossroads, that if we continue on the current path for much longer these massive criminal organizations will become so powerful on both sides of the border that only a political, not only a martial solution can reverse the tide (if we're not already at that point). Sadly, if America is unwilling to seek meaningful political solutions in its real war in Iraq, it's hard to see the government being that clever in the (increasingly non-symbolic) Drug War.