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Why the 'war on drugs' failed and what the US should do next

Record high overdoses in the COVID-era highlight the need for drastic and rapid course correction.

Analysis | Global Crises

Half a century ago, President Richard M. Nixon famously declared that drug abuse was “public enemy number one,” launching an “all-out offensive” against illicit narcotics, both at home and abroad.

Thus began what would become known (and derided) as the “war on drugs.” Judging by the body count, drugs are winning. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly 500,000 people suffered fatal overdoses from 1999-2019. Amid the stress, isolation, and economic turmoil of COVID-19 the death toll in 2020 surpassed 93,000, an increase of about 30 percent over the previous year.

And that doesn’t count collateral damage: the countless lives lost throughout the Americas in confrontations between drug traffickers and law enforcement or in struggles within and between the criminal groups involved in domestic street sales or international trafficking.

In Latin America, the “war on drugs” is no metaphor: governments from the Andes to Central America to Mexico have deployed military troops to eradicate crops, interdict shipments, and arrest criminal kingpins, often with U.S.-supplied military gear and U.S.-trained security forces.

Like any drawn-out conflict, the so-called war on drugs pits hawks against doves. Militants believe we should intensify the fight; pacificists argue for withdrawal, letting users buy narcotics on legal, regulated markets. Both sides underestimate harms. Tough enforcement may temporarily reduce supply, but it is unsustainable, given the high social and economic costs of aggressive policing and mass incarceration. Little or lax regulation will increase consumption, a lesson tragically learned in the 1990s when the over-prescription of legal opioids sparked the U.S. epidemic that persists today.

The synthetic opioid fentanyl — which is the main driver of fatal overdoses in the U.S. — further complicates the arguments of those who believe drug decriminalization is the answer. Unlike heroin or cocaine, fentanyl is a legally prescribed analgesic, essential for controlling severe pain. But it is so potent — and potentially so toxic — that few would argue possession for non-medical reasons is safe.

The rise of powerful transnational criminal organizations in Latin America reflects longstanding failures to develop trustworthy police forces and effective justice systems. In foreign supply control — as in domestic demand reduction — the United States and its partners need to work together to develop criminal justice strategies that prioritize saving lives and reducing harm.

Continuity and change under Biden

The Biden administration says it is putting harm reduction at the center of its domestic policies. In an April 2020 statement of drug policy priorities, the White House Office of National Drug Policy, or ONDCP, emphasizes evidence-based policies to mitigate the negative impacts of substance abuse through an array of public health programs. It also promises to address racial inequities in the criminal justice system.

In one major area, however, the administration has so far promised little change: policies to reduce foreign supply. While the ONDCP statement puts research and harm-reduction at the center of its domestic demand-reduction effort, it says little about supply control and nothing about reforming foreign counternarcotics assistance, using evidence to weigh harms and assess progress.

The U.S. government also continues the drug certification/designation process, which names and shames drug producing and drug transit countries for failing to fulfill their international obligations. Designated countries risk losing U.S. and multilateral aid as well as trade preferences. Though Latin American countries are rarely decertified — in recent years, the United States has singled out only Bolivia and Venezuela — the process is deeply resented, even by staunch U.S. allies, such as Colombia.

This unilateral stance is especially galling at a time when 36 states have legalized marijuana, either for medical or recreational use, policies that arguably contravene international treaties.

Harm promotion

The aphorism “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is particularly apt for drug trafficking organizations. There have been short-term gains, but few lasting victories. Tamping down on drug production or trafficking in one region tends to push criminal activities into another. Arresting drug kingpins often fragments criminal groups into increasingly savage factions.

Few countries have sacrificed more to combat criminal organizations than Colombia and Mexico. Colombia has eradicated nearly 300,000 hectares (more than 1,000 square miles) in the last four years alone, according to the State Department’s annual counternarcotics report.  Mexico has decapitated major trafficking groups by killing, capturing, or extraditing cartel leaders to the United States.

Both countries have suffered considerable collateral damage. To avoid aerial fumigation, Colombian traffickers have moved coca fields into national parks, reserves, and indigenous areas, putting both vulnerable populations and the environment at risk. Nonetheless, coca cultivation reached a record 212,000 hectares in 2019, much of it in areas dominated by guerrilla groups outside the 2016 peace accords. In Mexico, high-profile arrests have sparked vicious intra- and inter-cartel struggles for succession or territory and contributing to historically high rates of homicide

And what happened to the U.S. retail prices of illicit drugs as Colombian and Mexican security forces spent blood and treasure to eradicate crops and decapitate cartels? “Increased price and decreased purity” are the ONDCP’s measures of supply reduction success. But from 2006 to 2016, the purity-adjusted price of heroin declined while that of cocaine remained largely stable, according to analysis by the Rand Corporation.

Traffickers meanwhile have diversified into a variety of illicit enterprises. Criminal networks in the Andean region can earn as much (if not more) by illegal gold mining than by cocaine trafficking. Illegal mining (like coca cultivation) not only pollutes waterways and destroys forests, but also subverts local governance in remote areas where armed gangs provide both jobs and security. In Mexico, fuel theft (known as huachicoleo) from the state-run company is among the most profitable criminal rackets.

Fentanyl trafficking may cause even more profound changes to Mexico’s criminal landscape. Illicit fentanyl arrives in the United States from Asia either directly via mail or via Mexico, where the chemicals are often pressed into blue pills that mimic oxycodone. It is easier to make and transport “pressed blues” than to grow, process, and smuggle plant-based drugs, which will likely bring new criminal actors into the drug trade.

The long haul

What can be done? There are no quick fixes. But the Biden administration and U.S. partners in Latin America could better fund and manage both the public health emergency caused by substance abuse and the public security crisis engendered by organized crime. Successful efforts must be evidence-informed, country-led, and compact-based, as the bipartisan Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission argued in its December 2020 report.

That means using research to analyze lessons learned, establishing appropriate goals, setting benchmarks, and then using them to rigorously evaluate and modify policies in a rigorous, iterative process. It also means helping Latin American governments and civil society organizations develop law enforcement programs tailored to national or local concerns in a transparent process that allows their own citizens to hold them accountable for the results.

It doesn’t mean fighting illicit foreign supply with military force, regardless of the cost in human lives and livelihoods.

Colombia, Central America, and Mexico have all been laboratories for reforms designed to strengthen rule of law. Colombia’s peace accords include local plans that engage post-conflict communities in projects to promote sustainable, licit economic activities. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala spearheaded complex investigations into organized crime and government corruption, until the government ended its mandate in 2019. Mexico’s criminal justice reform has made judicial procedures both faster and fairer while reducing torture, mistreatment, and forced confessions.

But these efforts are all faltering for lack of funding and — most importantly — political will. That’s bad news, both for Latin American efforts to combat corruption and violent crime and U.S. efforts to curb foreign drug supplies.

The United States faces its own struggles with gang violence, police killings, and mass incarceration. Financing innovative, evidence-based programs both at home and abroad is the only way to reduce the ravages of both drug abuse and organized crime.

February 24, 2018: Mexican armed forces during operations in north eastern Mexico. (Photo: Roberto Galan via
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