from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The War on Drugs: Time for an Honest Conversation

April 20, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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The facts are clear. The war on drugs has failed. The current global prohibition regime inflates prices of narcotics, creating extraordinary incentives for drug producers and traffickers. Efforts to eradicate supply from one country simply lead criminal syndicates to turn their attention elsewhere. This is the conclusion of a damning June 2011 report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, composed of nineteen prominent world leaders (including former Secretary of State George Shultz). Rather than continuing to insist on policies of “zero tolerance,” and forcing all countries into “the same rigid approach to drug policy—the same laws, and the same tough approach to their enforcement,” the United Nations and the United States both need to be open to greater reform and experimentation at the national level.

So far, this message has not gotten through to U.S. officials.

On Tuesday the administration released its 2012 National Drug Control Strategy. The Obama administration is to be commended for placing the heaviest emphasis of its National Strategy on domestic efforts, touting investments in prevention, health care, treatment and recovery, and criminal justice reform, as well as curtailing domestic production. And it should be lauded for acknowledging that the U.S. appetite for illegal narcotics—and lax controls over weapons flows to southern neighbors—are the ultimate root of drug-related violence in the hemisphere. But the international components of the Strategy remained mired in “old think”—assuming that a combination of interdiction, eradication, justice reform, and alternative development can overcome market incentives created by the prohibition regime. (For example, the U.S. Strategy trumpets a big decline in Colombian coca production, only to concede that Peruvian production exploded by 33 percent between 2009 and 2010).

That document comes on the heels of the April 13-14 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, which exposed a growing gulf between the United States and its erstwhile hemispheric partners, many of whom believe the time has come to reconsider the ineffective supply-side dimensions of the “war on drugs.” It’s high time for the U.S. government and broader public to begin an open conversation on new policy options.

It was President Nixon who first designated drug use as “public enemy number one” in 1971. But in fairness to Nixon, his administration focused primarily on the domestic side of the problem. His successors were more ambitious about carrying the war on drugs overseas, assuming that the problem could be stopped at its source. Leaving aside that the United States has become a huge producer itself, particularly of marijuana and methamphetamines, it is time to admit that the supply side approach has failed. Remarkably, not only are George Soros and his allies arguing for a new tack, but so are a new generation of Latin American leaders on the front lines of the battle (who continue to receive enormous U.S. counternarcotics aid).

President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala, former head of his nation’s army intelligence services, fired the opening salvo soon after his inauguration in January, arguing for a regional approach to drug decriminalization. On April 7, he published a provocative article in the Guardian calling on the summit of the Americas to take up this agenda. “The prohibition paradigm…is based on a false premise: that the global drug markets can be eradicated.” Guatemala, he declared, is no longer “willing to continue as dumb witnesses to a global self-deceit.” The only realistic alternative, he contends, is regulated legalization.

Our proposal…is to abandon any ideological position (whether prohibition or liberalization) and to foster a global intergovernmental dialogue based on a realistic approach—drug regulation. Drug consumption, production, and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that consumption and production should be legalized but within certain limits and conditions. And legalization therefore does not mean liberalization without constraints.

Of greater significance than Guatemala is the shifting position of Colombia, long the world’s largest source of cocaine and the recipient of more than $8 billion of U.S. counternarcotics assistance over the past decade. In the run-up to the Cartagena summit, the Colombian host, President Juan Manuel Santos, called for a robust debate about decriminalizing personal consumption of narcotics, and even exploring the pros and cons of legalization.

Guatemala and Colombia are not alone. Insight Crime has published a fascinating interactive map summarizing the evolving positions on drug legalization and decriminalization of nearly two dozen nations in the Americas. They depict a heterogeneous hemisphere in which many countries outside the United States and Canada are experimenting with new, though hardly uniform, approaches.  And even in the United States, localities are trying new tacks when it comes to drug market intervention.

Although not on the official summit agenda, drugs were the “gorilla in the room” in Cartagena. Santos even managed to lure President Obama into an informal panel discussion on the issue, along with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. Santos demanded that the United States analyze the continuum of options: “One side can be all the consumers go to jail. On the other extreme is legalization. On the middle ground we may have more practical policies.” Obama’s response was congenial but firm. It was “entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are ones that are doing more harm than good.” But “my administration’s that legalization is not the answer.”

Given the looming presidential elections, Obama’s political caution in engaging this debate is understandable. Mitt Romney and the GOP, inflexibly committed  to the war on drugs, would surely pounce on any sign of White House “weakness” in defending America from the scourge of narcotrafficking. But the president does a disservice to honest policy dialogue in framing the choice starkly as either legalization or the status quo—when no hemispheric leader has proposed full, unregulated legalization.

Here’s hoping that America’s hemispheric neighbors keep prodding Washington to think more creatively about the challenge of drug abuse—and that the next administration, of whatever political stripe, uses its political capital to take some risks. The academic and think tank communities can help lead the way, by exposing U.S. politicians to alternative approaches to drug regulation that strike a creative middle ground between tired prohibition and full legalization (and all its attendant uncertainties).

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