The Drug War Hurts Latinos, and We Have the Power to Stop it

July 8, 2015 - By Mayra Espinoza-Martinez

I grew up translating for my mom. For as long as I can remember, I translated conversations between my mom and teachers, doctors, and sometimes even police officers. It was a coming-of-age experience atypical for many kids in the United States but familiar to those of us who grew up in this country with non-English-speaking parents.

Memories of my time as a cultural translator came to me again when I stumbled upon a Washington Post article on the increasing attention the Latino community is receiving from presidential hopefuls. Tactics include everything from targeted bilingual outreach to playing up a parent’s immigration roots and promising to halt deportations.

“I have never seen the Latino vote prioritized in this way – and this early – in a meaningful way,” said Cristóbal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project.

But in addition to setting up shop outside Hispanic grocery stores and churches, presidential hopefuls are also looking to reach older Latino voters, especially immigrants like my mom, through millennial voters like my siblings and me. Alex, from the Latino Victory Project, describes us as the “firsts” in families – the first to speak English, the first to attend college, the “influentials” that can sway other relatives to vote.

But so far, candidates of all political stripes have approached Latinos in such a way that objectifies our community by assuming that it is monolithic and composed of one-issue voters. Cursory nods to immigration fail to address how Latinos experience education, unemployment, and healthcare in the United States. And to date, not one candidate has taken a stance on how the drug war is hurting communities of color in the United States.

It’s time for Latinos to join the chorus of Americans calling for an end to the drug war, and first-generation Latinos must step up to make sure that our vote and the votes of our parents, our uncles and aunts, and our grandparents are not exploited. In some cases, that will require a bit of cultural translation.

From 2006 to 2012, more than 60,000 people died as a result of drug-related violence in my parent’s home country of Mexico. In New York, Latinos are arrested at nearly 4 times the rate of whites for marijuana even though Latinos and whites use at comparable rates. And from 2008 to 2014, one-quarter of a million people were deported for nonviolent drug offenses, some due to low-level infractions like marijuana possession.

The one thing all parents share is the desire to protect their kids. Although the legalization and regulation of all drugs may seem counterintuitive, repealing prohibition will keep our communities safer. For further proof, look to marijuana seizures along the U.S.-Mexican border, which have fallen in the wake of marijuana legalization. In 2011, 2.5 million pounds of marijuana were intercepted at the border, but in 2014, that number dropped to 1.9 million.

So long as prohibition and consumption continues, drug traffickers will do whatever it takes to remain profitable, whether that includes rebranding, restructuring business models, or eliminating competition. Legalization reduces the profit margins of illicit products and disincentivizes the time, money, and violence necessary to traffic drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.

Hermanos y hermanas, the drug war hurts people of color. It especially hurts women, children, and families. So let’s talk to our friends, let’s talk to our parents, let’s talk to the vecina around the corner. The drug war is hurting us, and it’s time we realize we have the voting power to stop it.

Mayra Espinoza-Martinez is an intern with the Drug Policy Alliance.

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