The Ethics of Purchasing Illegal Drugs

source: Berlanga, M. (2016, September 27). Want to Make Ethical Purchases? Stop Buying Illegal Drugs. The New York Times

American students are inundated with information from anti-drug campaigns and health classes about the harm that can be caused by drug use. However, drug education in the United States seems to focus on the impact that drugs have on individual human beings, and their health. When teenagers do find themselves at a point in their lives where they are offered drugs or alcohol, some will indulge under the pretense that drug use is only going to harm their own health, and this “victimless crime” is one that many are willing to commit.

The self-centered nature of drug education is well-intentioned but disregards the suffering of those whose communities and lives been torn apart by the illegal drug trade. Innocent lives are being lost to feed the drug habit of the United States, and there does not seem to be a simple way to solve this issue.

A Conversation with Mario Berlanga



In his New York Times Op-ed, “Want to Make Ethical Purchases? Stop Buying Illegal Drugs,” Mario Berlanga, an entrepreneur who grew up in the north of Mexico, presents a sobering reality for recreational drug users: “Follow the supply chain and you’ll find a trail of horrific violence,” he writes.1  We spoke to Berlanga about the impacts of American drug usage, and what can be done to alleviate cartel violence.

“In my hometown, in particular, drug violence arrived in 2007…The issue with my hometown is that it is at a crossroads between two major highways connecting our country with the US. It’s a very strategic point. As a result, drug cartels were fighting strongly over the control of that town,” Berlanga said.2

Berlanga also said that because his town is located between two states in Mexico (each controlled by a different cartel) he became aware that the cycle of violence is driven by logistics. Cartels need to control the supply chain of drugs that come from Colombia, Venezuela, Central America, or Mexico, which are then shipped north to the US.

Furthermore, he added, the guns, rifles, and automatic weapons that kill Mexicans or Latin Americans are produced and sold in the US. Berlanga said that to the best of his knowledge, there are no gun factories in Mexico.

Berlanga said that college students who use recreational drugs which are obtained illegally should consider alternative activities, or lobby their politicians to legalize. He said,

If they had seen the violence that their consumption generates in person, as I have, they would not want to buy them. I don’t think that getting high for some hours and having fun on the weekend…warrants the damage that that money is going to cause down the supply chain. I would advise them to think twice and…to find alternative methods of recreation, hopefully legal ones.”

In a response to Berlanga’s op-ed titled “We’re all being used: No, it’s not immoral to use illegal drugs — because it’s the War on Drugs that’s to blame,” Daniel Denvir argues that abstaining from drug use is not equivalent to systemic change.3

“Regardless of who the culprit of this war is, the author says is the government (and I largely agree), all consumers should know what is going on in the supply chain and make decisions that reflect their values. That is my pursuit because full legalization is not likely to happen anytime soon,” Berlanga said in response. “Should we just sit still and see more of our loved ones get killed?”2

Berlanga also said that the problem with pointing blame towards only the government is that consumers can then turn a blind eye and do nothing to change the status quo. However, if you open consumers’ eyes and show them the harm this war is producing (with their money), they can make decisions such as stop consuming, pressure politicians to liberalize, grow/prepare their own drugs, or disregard this information, he said.

Our Finds at Tufts University

With Berlanga’s observations in mind, we surveyed Tufts students about their drug use.

graphic-3 thing [1]

34% of responders said that they have worked with a group/club at Tufts aimed at alleviating social injustices. Some examples of these groups include Tufts Climate Action, Tufts United for Immigrant Justice, Tufts Labor Coalition, and Peer Health Exchange.

Of all students surveyed, 57% reported using recreational drugs. Of those students, 94% had used drugs that were obtained illegally (not from a doctor’s prescription or a dispensary).

Of the students who used illegally obtained drugs, 84% obtained them from a friend or acquaintance and 34% of them obtained the drugs from a drug dealer. 69% of students who obtained their drugs from a dealer, friend, or acquaintance did not know where their supplier obtained the drugs from. And of those who said they did know where their supplier obtained the drugs, 0% of responders named a specific country of origin.

We had 246 undergraduate survey respondents. As of fall 2015, there were 5,290 undergraduates on the Tufts campus.7 This is a small slice of the campus population, and it is likely that more illegal drug use is occurring, and further providing the cartels with money.

At the end of our survey, we allowed students to anonymously share their thoughts on drug use and its implications at Tufts. Opinions were varied:

“I very rarely smoke marijuana recreationally. When I do, I feel incredible guilt. I generally abstain from drugs because I hate the feeling of being complicit in the violence associated with the drug trade and the War on Drugs. If I knew exactly where drugs were coming from, I would probably use a lot more.”

“I don’t think anyone should be arrested for drug use of any kind. I think all drug use is a reflection of mental health. People want to expand their consciousness, distort their reality, have a little fun, or even make pain go away. None of these things should be seen as wrong or immoral. I believe the illegality of drugs does FAR more damage than we realize.”

“…there are so many people at Tufts who use drugs recreationally yet have no idea where these drugs are sourced and whether they might be laced or irresponsibly obtained. Yet, people are willing to spend real money on these drugs. Why then can’t we let the market provide a safe and responsible route for these drugs to be purchased instead of forcing well-meaning people to use such unsafe means of obtaining these drugs? It’s crazy.”


Legalization: Helpful, or a Hindrance?

During our interview, Berlanga said that he only sees two paths that the USA can take in order to help end the horrific drug violence plaguing his country: either legalize all drugs so the cartels no longer have a market in the United States or somehow get all Americans to stop using illegal drugs.2 Both options seem implausible. However, some view the legalization of marijuana as having the ability to help protect the innocent victims of cartel violence.

Massachusetts recently voted to legalize marijuana, joining a growing list of states that have chosen to do so. In a Boston Globe op-ed titled “Marijuana opponents fight the wrong greedy capitalists,” Dante Ramos wrote “Pot stores may be unseemly. Organized crime networks that slaughter people are infinitely worse.”4 Ramos criticized opponents of Question 4 who focused on the financial gains or losses for Massachusetts in their opposition for not recognizing the impact of cartel violence on innocent people, and for focusing more on what legalization meant financially, instead of what it could mean ethically.4

However, many Massachusetts towns are also struggling to fight the heroin epidemic that has crept across the state. In the 2016 National Heroin Threat Assessment Summary, the DEA states that the number of people reporting current heroin use has tripled between 2007 and 2014 (from 161,000 to 435,000).5 The DEA attributes these changes to heroin being higher in purity and lower in price, the proximity of Mexico (which controls most of the heroin used in the United States) to the United States, and the broad group of heroin users.5

In an Esquire article titled “El Chapo and the Secret History of the Heroin Crisis,” Don Winslow argues that the heroin epidemic was caused by legal marijuana. When marijuana was legalized in Colorado in 2012, the Sinaloa Cartel suffered a 40 percent drop in marijuana sales, which the cartel then decided to overcome with a response to the American addiction to prescription opioids: they increased heroin production, made their heroin purer, and dropped its price.6

As law enforcement cracked down on surging prescription opioid deaths, the presence of Mexican heroin in the United States slowly grew.6 Winslow writes that overdose rates have more than doubled from 2000 to 2014, and more people (47,055) died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any other year in American history.6 “That’s 125 people a day, more than five lives every hour, a fatality level that matched the AIDS epidemic’s peak in 1995,” Winslow writes.6

What Comes Next?

It is evident that effectively ending drug-related violence is nearly impossible. It does not seem likely that our government will legalize all illegal drugs in the near future, or that Americans will stop using drugs on their own volition. Furthermore, legalization is not a cut and dry solution: though marijuana legalization can lower the demand for cartel marijuana, they will undoubtedly find new ways to provide Americans with whatever fix we demand.

However, there is one step that we, as Americans, can take now to try and alleviate drug-related violence: educate those around us about what their drug usage means for those who are and are not living in the United States. If you wish to consume these drugs, encourage your politicians to legalize, and take the power away from the cartels. Or consider turn to legal vices. And, above all else, continuing to spread an awareness of what drug use means for those living with the violence of drug wars, and could help the USA curtail illegal recreational drug consumption.

Special thanks to Mario Berlanga for speaking with us about his experiences.

research, writing, and infographics by Christine Balcer, Melissa Kain, & Lorenza Ramirez


  1. Berlanga, M. (2016, September 27). Want to Make Ethical Purchases? Stop Buying Illegal Drugs. The New York Times, p. A23. Retrieved November 25, 2016, from
  2. Berlanga, M. (2016, November 1). Interview with Mario Berlanga [Telephone interview].
  3. Denvir, D. (2016, September 26). We’re all being used: No, it’s not immoral to use illegal drugs — because it’s the war on drugs that’s to blame. Salon. Retrieved October 15, 2016, from
  4. Ramos, D. (2016, October 7). Marijuana opponents fight the wrong greedy capitalists. The Boston Globe. Retrieved November 25, 2016, from
  5. United States of America, US Drug Enforcement Administration. (2016, June 27). United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Retrieved November 25, 2016, from
  6. Winslow, D. (2016, August 9). El Chapo and the Secret History of the Heroin Crisis. Esquire. Retrieved November 25, 2016, from
  7. Tufts at a Glance. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2016, from
Melissa Kain
Lead Editor.
Melissa Kain is a junior majoring in mathematics and Spanish and minoring in English. She can be reached at

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