Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Has the United States Failed to Adequately Fight Illegal Drugs?

Q: A new Inter-American Dialogue report says U.S. drug policies, which are mostly focused on prohibiting the production, distribution and consumption of narcotics, 'have done little to diminish the problems they were designed to address' and are costly in both financial and human terms. The report calls for a broad national debate on U.S. drug strategies and an intense review of international policies. Is growing violence in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America a sign of failures in drug policy? Has the Obama administration made any significant change in anti-drug efforts? What policies should it be pursuing? What anti-drug programs in the United States and in Latin America have been particularly successful and should be replicated? A: Barry R. McCaffrey, president of BR McCaffrey Associates, a retired U.S. Army four-star general and former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy: "The Inter-American Dialogue report is a tired rehash of arguments for the domestic legalization of illicit drugs. The paper uses shaky logic to claim that the harm done by the so-called 'War on Drugs' in Latin-America exceeds the damage done by some carefully unspecified alternative strategy. Since 1996, the U.S. National Drug Control Strategy has been based on prevention. We also called for science-based treatment of America's 21 million alcohol and illegal drug abusers and for the enforcement of the law. The medical, social, legal and criminal devastation that comes with chronic poly-drug abuse (alcohol and other drugs) is the most single serious problem facing America's parents, employers, physicians and the criminal justice system. The answer is reducing adolescent exposure through education. We also have to provide effective drug and alcohol treatment for the chronically addicted. Only 3.5 million receive treatment. Millions more need it but are stigmatized, or find it unaffordable, or treatment is unavailable. Drug abuse-and crime-are way down in America. Drug abuse peaked in 1979 at some 13 percent of the population. Now it is around 7 percent. (It has just gone up dramatically among youth-largely related to the widespread availability of so-called medical marijuana.) The drug problem in Europe and Latin-America and Afghanistan, and Russia and elsewhere has gone up. Mexico's courageous leadership is trying to establish the rule of law and defeat some of the world's most murderous criminal cartels. The brave people of Colombia have established dominance over internal terrorists that were predominantly funded by hundreds of millions of dollars of criminal money. The problems of drug abuse will not go away if we legalize heroin, crack, methamphetamines, PCP, THC, and illegally diverted highly effective painkillers like Oxycontin. America is largely drug free. However, chronic addicts have lives of utter misery. Illegal drug sales fuel terrible criminal organizations. The solution is freeing young people from a dazed, drugged lifestyle. It also involves all of us in the Americas portraying the strongest possible social and legal disapproval of the production and illegal sale of these devastating substances." A: Andrés Rozental, member of the Advisor board and president of Rozental & Asociados in Mexico City and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution: "The Dialogue's report on rethinking U.S. drug policy is an excellent start to what I hope will be a growing debate in all the countries of our hemisphere on alternatives to the punitive policies that have been followed by governments to attempt to diminish society's appetite for narcotics and to impede the production, sale and consumption of illegal drugs. These policies-which have been the result of international agreements and domestic legislation in place for more than a century-have done almost nothing to change the realities of the drug culture in which we live today. Whereas in the past one could distinguish between producing, transit and consuming countries, most of the countries in our region can now be categorized as all three. This is certainly the case with Mexico, which has evolved from a mostly benign transit territory, to a major producer and growing consumer market, plagued with organized criminal activity, violence and bloodshed because of a failed 'war on drugs.' Even in Colombia, where billions of dollars have been spent in crop eradication and the dismantling of cartels, the amount of cocaine produced and exported has barely changed over the last two decades. Faced with this failure of repressive and punitive policies, the largest countries of the region should be spearheading a broad review of the entire range of issues associated with illegal drugs, especially the medical, legal, economic and societal aspects. The sooner we accept that drug consumption-like alcohol, tobacco and other controlled substances-are permanent manifestations of human behavior, the sooner governments and societies will be able to address the issue on its merits, rather than on moral, political or sanctimonious grounds. We should admit that even those countries in Asia that punish drug trafficking and consumption with the harshest of penalties have been unable to totally prevent the phenomenon, while other governments, for example in Europe, that have decriminalized the personal use of certain substances have managed at least to take the business away from organized crime and bring it under official supervision and fiscal regimes." A: Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies: "For decades, the United States has pursued an unbalanced supply-side approach to preventing drug use when so many studies have shown that demand reduction measures (e.g. prevention and treatment on request) have a much greater impact dollar-for-dollar. The result has been to make a bad situation worse in Latin America, and it has filled our prisons in the United States (we now have 25 percent of the prisoners on the entire planet). Our policies have aggravated turf wars, provided an indirect price support to traffickers and corrupted weak governments throughout the hemisphere. Meanwhile, consumers have little problem finding whatever drugs they desire. This is not a successful drug control system. As with other wars, Congress has always been willing to fund 'get tough' measures but finds little political will to adequately support 'soft' demand reduction policies. Moreover, their fear of being attacked for appearing weak runs directly counter to public opinion which is turning against the drug war. For instance, 46.5 percent of California voters supported Prop 19 to legalize and tax marijuana. Similar initiatives will be on the 2012 ballot in Colorado and other states. It may surprise readers to learn that Mendocino and Humbolt counties (the pot growing capitals of California) voted against Prop 19 because they want the profits associated with a little prohibition. It's the same with drug traffickers. Without the drug war, they're only peddling minimally processed agricultural commodities that should cost pennies per dose. It's time to stop subsidizing their profits through prohibition. The Obama administration has slowly shifted its policies, but much more cautiously than the times and circumstances demand."

Suggested Content

A Disappointing First Year: Obama & Latin America

Inter-American relations have taken a disappointing course for the Obama Administration. The US has suffered several political setbacks in the region and little progress has been made on most of the “legacy” issues that Obama inherited.

˙Peter Hakim