When it comes to ‘forever wars,’ few can rival the longevity of the U.S. War on Drugs. President-elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will now inherit this war, first proclaimed in 1971 by President Nixon, and waged at home and abroad for nearly a half a century since.
Absorbed into myriad government agency missions over the decades, the drug war will not be easy to unwind. But new urgency to reform domestic criminal justice and drug policy can help Biden and Harris start reining in the U.S. drug war in the Americas. Doing so will require being candid about why the anti-drug crusade has failed so badly.
Washington escalated this law enforcement campaign in the 1980s, with bipartisan passage of draconian sentencing laws such as the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, co-sponsored by then-Senator Biden. The same bill created the “drug certification” process, requiring the President to judge whether other nations were cooperating on drug control and threatening sanctions for countries deemed unhelpful. Also in 1986, President Reagan named drug trafficking a national security threat, formally engaging the Pentagon in drug interdiction.
In 1989, President H.W. Bush launched the Andean Strategy to pump U.S. military and police aid to Colombia, Peru and Bolivia to destroy coca cultivation and cocaine production. Bush ended the decade by invading Panama to topple strongman Manuel Noriega, who, despite his longstanding relationship with the CIA, was accused of acting as a key link in drug trafficking.
Meanwhile, “Plan Colombia” was conceived under President Bill Clinton in 1999, pumping billions of dollars and U.S. military and law enforcement into the region until it morphed into “Peace Colombia” after 2015 under the Obama Administration.
But all of this money invested in suppressing supply “at the source” has failed to curb drug production and availability, while heaping harm on Latin America’s most vulnerable communities. Forced crop eradication has pushed vulnerable communities into even deeper poverty. Militarized enforcement has resulted in direct human rights violations and triggered lethal violence as crime organizations have battled one another, as well as law enforcement.
As in the United States, Latin America’s drug war stigmatizes people who use drugs and fuels dramatic increases in incarceration, mostly for drug possession or low-level drug trade activities, and with a disproportionate impact on women. Latin American leaders bristle at U.S. hypocrisy in judging others even as U.S. demand for illegal drugs generates hugely lucrative markets, thus fueling chronic tension and mistrust in U.S.-Latin American relations.
Big changes will not come easily. Blaming foreigners for U.S. travails remains politically potent. The supply-side mission has also gathered bureaucratic inertia, with a welter of federal agencies protective of programs and budgets built up over decades. To make headway, Biden’s team must start with a clear-eyed appraisal of the scale of the drug war’s failures, and realism about its limitations and the harm it causes.
One: While crop eradication and drug interdiction can disrupt production and smuggling operations, it can do so only temporarily as producers and traffickers adapt in what has been called by the “balloon effect.” Mobility in response to enforcement plays out time and again, as traffickers alter routes and stake out new territories where authorities can be eluded, intimidated, or co-opted. The drug trade has become more dispersed and widespread in Latin America and thus even more difficult to contain, much less eradicate.
Two: COVID-19 and its economic devastation can be expected to swell the already large number of families in Latin America for whom the illegal drug trade offers an economic survival strategy — a de facto social safety net of the sort that governments have been incapable of providing.
Three: The rise of fentanyl and other pharmaceutical opioids poses even greater challenges. U.S. pharmaceutical companies such as Purdue Pharma grew rich by taking advantage of lax regulation to aggressively market powerful painkillers like OxyContin. Cutting off people who had grown dependent on legal painkillers and pushing them into unpredictable and toxic illegal markets created a perfect storm of surging overdose deaths as fentanyl entered the market. Today, illicit fentanyl is largely produced in China and smuggled into the United States via Mexico or shipped directly to U.S. consumers. But if China clamps down on fentanyl, other countries, such as India, will likely fill the vacuum.
Four: The prohibitionist UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961 was aimed at creating a “drug-free world.” But illegal drug markets have expanded exponentially since the 1960s, generating hefty profits for those willing to act outside the law. Once installed at a certain scale — as has long been the case for drugs like cannabis, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine — even the most ambitious enforcement operations struggle to achieve episodic impacts on availability. Pablo Escobar was killed in Colombia more than 25 years ago and “El Chapo” is behind bars in a U.S. prison, but the illegal drug trade continues to thrive.
These realities suggest that a prohibitionist approach, particularly one focused on controlling foreign supply, is bound to fail. A complete overhaul of drug control strategy will be a long-term effort, but a first step would be to recognize the ineffectiveness of supply control and focus more attention on urgent domestic needs and alternative drug policy approaches.
One alternative gaining ground is cannabis legalization: 15 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have already chosen to decriminalize and regulate the drug, despite their clear conflict with federal law. Rising support for legalization across the political spectrum indicates that U.S. federal cannabis reform is a matter of time. So far, two countries have enacted national cannabis regulation laws — Uruguay (2013) and Canada (2018) — while Mexico appears likely to do so in 2021.
Respected figures such as Juan Manuel Santos — former President of Colombia and a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy — have urged consideration of regulation models for drugs considered more dangerous than cannabis, with riskier substances requiring stricter versions of regulated legal access. On Election Day, Oregon voters approved an historic ballot measure to decriminalize possession of all illegal drugs.
But shifts toward regulated markets for drugs other than cannabis (as well as the coca leaf in Bolivia and Peru) do not appear to be on the horizon. Global drug markets will therefore continue to be fueled by prohibition and the vast profits generated for those willing to operate outside the law.
Biden should urgently devote resources to domestic efforts to address the nation’s drug overdose crisis and deliberately lower expectations about what can be achieved on the supply side. Concretely, the new administration should move to retire the drug-certification process, which has proven to be worse than useless; stop U.S. support for forced crop eradication, including aerial herbicide spraying (‘fumigation’); and prioritize U.S. support for tackling corruption and strengthening justice institutions in Latin America, recognizing that fortifying institutions will require long-term investments. Finally, the Biden administration should stay out of the way of other countries that decide to pursue more significant reforms, such as decriminalization of drug possession and cultivation for personal use, or legal regulation of cannabis markets.
Ultimately, winding down the drug war will require more far-reaching reforms than those currently on the U.S. agenda. At the very least, the Biden administration should avoid escalating the drug war it will inherit. And even if immediate reforms are modest compared to the enormity of the problem, Biden can make a lasting contribution by simply being honest about the limits and costs of overseas supply control.