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Rethinking US Drug Policy

By Peter Hakim
Política Exterior, October 31, 2011

The original version of this article in Spanish is available here.

No one has yet discovered how to objectively measure the success or failure of national drug control policies—or what success or failure even mean in practice. Most Americans, however, today believe that the US “war against drugs” has failed. Latin Americans have long been critical of Washington’s anti-drug policies, and tend to blame US consumption of illicit drugs for the escalating crime and violence in their countries.

What the available evidence does say is that in the past two decades, US anti-drug policies—focused on prohibiting drug production, trade, and consumption, and punishing those involved—have not done much to diminish the problems they were designed to address. Although the use of illicit drugs dropped sharply from its high point in the late 1970s and early 1980s, drug supply and consumption in the US have remained essentially constant since 1990.  In countries across the globe, drug-related problems, such as organized crime, violence, and corruption have become more threatening.

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Indeed, the central theme of a Blue Ribbon report published by the Global Commission on Drug Policy – led by, among others, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Ernesto Zedillo, Cesar Gaviria, Kofi Annan, Javier Solana, George Shultz and Paul Volcker – is that US policies, instead of contributing to a solution, are, year in and year out, making the situation worse.
Colombia is the one country cited as a success story for US drug policy. The US supported Plan Colombia has assisted the Colombian government in gaining more effective control over its territory and decisively reducing armed violence against its citizens. The security advances in Colombia are clear. There remain questions, however, about whether much progress has been made in disrupting the drug trade. Colombia remain a major source of processed cocaine for the US and European markets. And whatever success has been achieved in Colombia, it has occurred within an expanding sea of failure across Latin America, which today faces a spreading plague of criminal violence.

Debate and discussion on drug policies, however, remains muted in Washington where lawmakers tolerate ineffective, even damaging, policies because no alternative strategy has yet gathered much political support. What is most needed in the US, and across Latin America, now are serious and far-reaching debates on (1) the effectiveness and multiple costs of current drug policies and (2) an intense, open-minded search for alternative approaches that could reduce the risks and damage of drug trafficking and abuse. This was the central conclusion of the highly regarded report, Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift, by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, the predecessor of the Global Comission.

The War on Drugs at an Impasse

Statistics on drug use in the US (or anywhere else) are notoriously unreliable. The available numbers, however, indicate that US consumption of cocaine and marijuana has remained nearly stable for a generation. The data also show that Americans consume illegal substances at a rate some three times that of Europe, but that drug use in the EU is growing rapidly and a few countries consume more per capita than the US. In both the US and Europe, the wholesale prices of cannabis and cocaine appear to have declined in recent years, while their potency has increased. According to an EU Commission study, global drug production and use was largely unchanged from 1998 through 2009.

The two pillars of the US battle against drug trafficking—eradication of source crops and interdiction of narcotics shipments—have done little to curtail the supply of drugs headed for the US and other international markets. From time to time, individual countries report some significant declines in the drug cultivation, production, or transit, but these have invariably been offset by increases elsewhere—the so-called “balloon effect.”  Diminished coca leaf production in Peru and Bolivia in the 1990s led directly to expanded cultivation in Colombia. In response to government spraying, coca production shifted to other parts of the country. When the US closed Caribbean drug routes in the 1990s, cocaine shipments were redirected to Mexico.

Today, virtually everywhere in the Americas, delinquency, violence, and corruption are fueled by illegal drugs. In some countries, democratic stability is threatened. In most places, ordinary citizens point to exploding criminality and street violence as their nation’s single most serious problem. Many Latin American countries are now major consumers of drugs, albeit at far lower rates than the US and Europe.

Most Latin American governments welcome US cooperation to help confront the crime and violence associated with the drug trade. But they have come increasingly to resent Washington’s inflexible approach to fighting drugs. They are puzzled and frustrated by Washington’s unwillingness to consider alternative policies—despite the mounting evidence that US anti-drug programs are ineffective, and in many situations, counterproductive. Latin Americans know that, given the size of the US drug market and Washington’s dominant role in shaping international anti-drug policies, no initiative to revise global strategies can succeed without US support.Without a change in US policy, there is little room for most countries to shift their own policies.

Why have alternative approaches been so staunchly resisted in Washington? Part of the answer is that there is no policy option that offers a solution to the problem. No serious analyst suggests that drug consumption can be eliminated or even reduced very much.  The alternative framework that has gotten greatest attention is not even aimed at curbing drug use. The so-called “harm reduction” approach is, instead, intended to diminish the damage that drugs and anti-drug measures do to individuals and their families, communities, and nations.

Alternatives that do not constrain consumption have little appeal to parents who want to keep drugs from their children—or those who view drug use through a moral lens, and favor “no tolerance” approaches. Strategies like harm reduction are complex to explain and do not inspire much enthusiasm. They appear nakedly pragmatic, short on principles, and a sign of resignation. They require trade-offs and choices that people do not want to make. Another major hurdle to change is the bureaucratic interests that have developed and hardened over the years, and which today staunchly defend the status quo. Washington’s powerful anti-drug agencies have been largely impervious to new ideas.

So, What Can Be Done?


Among those giving most attention to the issues, a convergence is emerging on the elements of an alternative drug strategy. Intellectually at least, the ground appears increasingly set. The essential framework is presented in the Latin American Commission report, “Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift.” It includes the following.

•    Evidence drawn from many different countries with diverse drug control regimes suggests that consumption is just not affected much by government policies or programs. The elimination or even a significant decrease of drug use is not a feasible policy objective in most places.

•    Substance abuse is best managed as a long-term health problem, not as a criminal activity. Imprisoning drug users does little to reduce consumption, and may cause more harm to the individual and society than the drug use itself. Treatment not punishment is the right way to deal with drug abusers--although efforts at treatment and rehabilitation themselves so far have had only limited success.

•    Governments should treat marijuana, the most used and least addictive drug, differently than other illicit drugs.  Ending the criminal sanctions on marijuana would eliminate most of its harmful consequences—including the crime and violence associated with its production and distribution; the damage to the lives of young people who are imprisoned; the health dangers from unregulated marijuana markets; and the huge financial burdens associated with enforcement (overstretched police and overcrowded prisons and courts, for example). Whether legalization will increase the number of users is uncertain, but available evidence suggests the effect will be modest. 

•    There is wide agreement that eradication and interdiction have failed to curb the supply of illicit drugs. But alternative strategies—like agricultural development schemes—have been ineffective as well. In most places, no other crop has been able to consistently to compete with coca leaves or cannabis. Economic development in rural areas leading to increasing incomes and nonfarm employment may be the only sustainable path to reducing drug crop production – and success will likely end up simply moving production elsewhere.

•    While the Commission calls on national governments to continue to battle against drug criminals in protect their citizens’ security and check the influence of organized, transnational crime, it is important to recognize that the fight against criminal violence may not reduce drug activity.

Evolving public attitudes and a changing US political context—along with changes in Europe and Latin America—today offer some encouragement that alternative approaches may be gaining some resonance.

Changing US Views and Attitudes

An increasing number of Americans support change in US drugs polices. According to an April 2009 ABC News/ Washington Post poll, nearly half of all Americans favor decriminalizing the possession of marijuana for personal use—although less than a third favors full legalization. Some 27 percent of Americans believe that legalizing some drugs is the best way to combat the drug trade.

State-level policies in the US have shifted. By allowing marijuana to be sold for medical purposes, California has essentially made its use free of criminal penalties—and many other states are following suit. Indeed, there are now few places in the United States that actively prosecute possession of small quantities of any drug. Few Americans today are imprisoned for simply using drugs; the great majority of those behind bars has been caught selling or transporting.

The immense financial costs of punitive drug policies are getting attention in state and local budget battles. The need to pay for police and prisons are only part of the price, which also includes the disruption of lives, careers, and families; vastly overburdened courts; and the nation’s diminished image abroad. An increasing number of states are establishing special courts targeted to drug offenders, and the US Congress passed a law last year reducing harsh sentences for crack cocaine. Parole and treatment options are getting more consideration.

Latin Americans are troubled about US drug policies and how they affect the region. Although few governments have challenged Washington on its drug strategy, they are, more and more, adopting the alternative menu of approaches offered by the Global Commission and the Latin American Commission.  Even as the Mexican government fiercely battles powerful drug cartels, it has legalized possession of small quantities of narcotics. Many other governments in the region (including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela) have similar laws. 

Some US policy officials are calling for a review of US anti-drug policies. Senator Jim Webb’s proposal for a blue ribbon commission on the US criminal justice system will probably not be pursued once he retires next year. But the current and former chairmen of the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, Representatives Connie Mack and Eliot Engel, continue to promote a commission to review US anti-drug strategies.

And the Obama White House, more than any previous US administration, has called for new approaches to the nation’s drug problems. Although neither anti-drug expenditures nor policies have shifted much so far, the president and his drug czar have rejected the outworn “war on drugs” label for US strategy, and endorsed treating drug use more as a public health issue than a criminal matter.

Getting Drug Policy on Washington’s Agenda

Still, core US drug policies appear stuck on auto-pilot.  Reform of US drug laws and policies is barely a visible item on the Obama administration’s agenda. The changes announced by the White House are mostly of tone and emphasis rather than of policies, programs, and budgets. Drug policy remains a marginal matter for Congress.

Fear of illicit drugs—as a source of crime and violence and, even more, as a magnetic temptation for children and teens—remains a powerful deterrent to any public support for relaxation of hard-line, punitive anti-drug policies. The arguments favoring change, moreover, appear to many to be defeatist and unprincipled. They indicate a willingness to tolerate activities that we know to be harmful, dangerous, and immoral. It will be difficult to persuade Americans and their elected officials to consider the policies of tolerance and accommodation. 

The first task is to generate an honest, well-informed, and wide-ranging exploration and debate on alternative drug policies across the Americas. This would systematically expose the US public and lawmakers to the evidence suggesting that alternative policies could reduce damage of drug trafficking and substance abuse—both in the United States and in neighboring countries. Some ideas for getting the needed debate off the ground include:

Better data and information:
One substantial impediment to informed debate and action is the dismal state of data and information on every aspect of the drug problem. The poor quality of basic data frustrates efforts to assess existing policies and programs, compare results across countries, and devise and estimate the impact of new approaches. What information is produced is often not fully accessible, or it comes from agencies that employ different definitions and methodologies, yielding conflicting and confusing results. It is never easy to compile reliable statistics on illegal activities. But much can be done to remedy the incomplete, incomparable, and often contradictory data on drugs. Data on drug use and addiction, in short, needs to be brought up to the standards for other major health and medical problems.

Careful Review and Evaluation of Programs:   Like health measures and medical treatments, drug programs should be designed and implemented to assure that the results can be evaluated. It would be helpful for the US government to do identify and carefully assess promising anti-drug initiatives at the community and state levels in such areas as treating addiction and lowering users’ health risks, and retraining of drug offenders. Washington should also be encouraging study of policy innovations elsewhere—for example, Portugal’s decriminalization initiative and Colombia’s promotion of rural development in coca growing areas. And substantially more attention should be given to drawing lessons from both successful and failed efforts to battle criminal organizations and the violence, corruption, and other damage they perpetrate. Colombia’s experience should be much more intensely studied

US Congressional Commissions: To date, the White House has shown little inclination to take the lead in rethinking US drug strategies, but at a minimum, it should endorse and encourage the approval of proposed legislation to establish a congressional commission to review US anti-drug policies and explore alternative domestic and international strategies.

An International or Regional Task Force on Drug Policy: The US government should consider supporting the organization of an international task force on drugs (either under UN auspices or led by a smaller group of governments) to review global policy efforts on drugs. The purpose would be to assess the effectiveness of current guidelines, policies, and programs of multilateral agencies and bilateral programs; how they can be made more effective; and how cooperation can be strengthened.

Important emphasis should be given to scrutinizing the UN resolutions that set the legal underpinnings of the international narcotics regime. These have guided global activities—particularly those of the UN and other multilateral agencies—for nearly 20 years, and need to be revised and updated.

A Hemispheric Effort: There is also a strong argument for a hemispheric initiative, perhaps managed by the OAS, given the deepening urgency of drug-related problems in Latin America. The Latin American Commission report provides the needed direction for new policy approaches in the region.

Washington, for example, should be actively pursuing cooperative approaches with Latin American governments—not only at a technical and bureaucratic level, but in formulating policies and strategies. To date, these have been mostly drawn up in Washington, with US agencies taking the lead. Latin American governments should be encouraged to develop their own approaches and cooperate among themselves, as well as with the United States, on drug matters. The hub-and-spoke model, with Washington at the center, needs to be replaced.

The US government might also consider encouraging the OAS to extend its drug activities beyond the solid professional work done by the Inter-American Drug Abuse Commission (CICAD) in the assessment of the anti-narcotics efforts of member countries, and begin systematic efforts to evaluate the policy frameworks for dealing with drug problems in the hemisphere.

Washington should certainly relinquish its dominant, sometimes stifling, role in shaping regional counternarcotics efforts and begin genuinely to cooperate with Latin American governments in developing fresh ideas and strategies.