“Bales of cocaine, fallin’ from low-flyin’ planes,
I don’t know who done dropped ‘em, but I thank ‘em just the same,
Bales of cocaine, fallin’ like a foreign rain,
My life changed completely by the low-flyin’ planes.”
Reverend Horton Heat
The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy issued a report on 11 February titled “Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift” that says the US war on drugs has failed and it’s time to develop a new policy approach.
The commission – whose co-presidents include former Presidents Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil – voices – expresses optimism in the report that new US President Barack Obama might take the initiative in forcing a shift in the geopolitical tectonics of the almost century-old US war on drugs.
The commission’s report, calling for a paradigm shift in decades-old US – and therefore worldwide –counter-drug policies stressing interdiction of drug traffickers at the source and punitive incarceration of consumers, is squarely on target.
The US war on drugs not only has failed utterly to halt the growth and globalization of the illicit narcotics industry, but also has contributed greatly to chronic instability, violence, crime and corruption in the world’s principal drug-producing and drug-transit countries.
However, good luck getting anyone in Washington, DC – including President Obama – to publicly acknowledge the failure of US drug policy.
And good luck getting any influential Democrats and Republicans, including African-American and Latino leaders, to stand up in Congress and call for a bipartisan effort to draft a new drug policy that would “decriminalize” (i.e. legalize) the consumption of some drugs (e.g. marijuana, hashish, coca leaf, organic and synthetic hallucinogens like mushrooms and LSD, etc.), and establish more sensible and humane law enforcement, health care and education policies/legislation to control the production, distribution and consumption of physiologically addictive drugs like cocaine, heroin, etc.
Caracas Gringo worked this issue, among others, during his years as a think tank policy wonk in Washington, DC. Privately, practically every one of the dozens of State Department, DEA, executive and congressional branch officials with whom Caracas Gringo discussed US drug policy in Washington agreed privately and off-the-record that the US war on drugs was a complete failure. This group included eight former US ambassadors to Colombia, Bolivia and Mexico.
However, in their public remarks all of these diplomats, legislators and other policymakers never strayed from the official bipartisan line on US drug policy: The drug war must go on; there are no alternatives to current US drug policy.
Decriminalization = legalization and politically that’s a lose/lose dilemma for legislators, explained a colleague who specialized in lobbying legislators from both parties to approve trade agreements like NAFTA.
“Politicians only like win/win situations,” he said. “Win/lose is acceptable if the loser is one’s political opponent, but no one voluntarily embraces lose/lose situations because these are political career killers at election time,” he said.
A typical public exchange on US drug policy in Washington, DC between A and B goes something like this:
A – The war on drugs is a failure. Drugs remain plentiful and cheap on the streets of America’s cities. We need to try a new approach, such as “decriminalizing” some substances like marijuana and managing its consumption like we regulate alcohol consumption. We should consider treating other harsher drugs as a social control problem rather than a punitive interdiction and law enforcement/incarceration problem. The experience of the Prohibition era taught us that current US drug policy will never curb consumption, though it will foster the spread of organized crime.
B – So, what you’re saying is that you support/favor drug legalization and allowing anyone in America to have access to any drugs they wish on demand.
A – No, I didn’t say that. I said current drug policy isn’t working and we should consider different approaches.
B – Like legalization?
A – I didn’t say the word “legalization.”
This is almost always the core thrust of any “debate” or “discussion” of US drug policy in Washington in the policymaking mainstream, regardless of how intellectually convoluted or semantically creative the speakers might be during the exchange. On the fringes one certainly finds individuals and institutions (like NORML) who call outright for legalizing some drugs like marijuana.
But in the mainstream there’s no space, at least in the glare of public attention, for serious proponents of decriminalization or legalization of drugs.
Moreover, for social conservatives and even for many Americans who usually vote Democrat, the drug issue also has judgmental moral implications. Many Americans view anyone who criticizes US drug policy and proposes decriminalization or legalization, or a more humanist/social approach to the issue, as a fundamentally immoral person lacking in character and positive family/social values. This group considers the word “legalization” a foul obscenity, and politically (i.e voter opinion) is in the majority.
The drug war lobby in Washington also is very powerful and influential. Fighting the war on drugs is a business worth easily over $100 billion a year. Many US federal, state and local law enforcement and other security entities have a strong economic stake in continuing and expanding the war on drugs, and so does the Pentagon.
During the late-1990s, the US Southern Command (Southcom) was seeking a new mission in Latin America, fearing budget cuts in a post-Cold War world where Latin America did not pose any significant threats to US national security.
As a result, Southcom eagerly embraced (and lobbied for) the creation of Plan Colombia, which merged the parallel but separate battles against Colombian drug traffickers and the FARC/ELN militant groups into a single military offensive against the “narco-terrorists.”
The fusion in 2000 of what had been two separate missions in Colombia into the comprehensive Plan Colombia military strategy also became part of the US global war against terrorism after Al Qaeda’s 911 terrorist attacks destroyed New York’s World Trade center and severely damaged the Pentagon.
The average district representative or senator in Congress won’t condemn the US drug war as futile, failed, too costly and a major cause of social and political instability in many Latin American societies. As our trade lobbyist friend said: “Politicians only embrace win/win causes, and drug legalization, decriminalization or whatever you want to call it is a lose/lose cause because the average American tends to support tough, punitive drug laws.”
There are also unspoken “social” and “political” frontiers in Washington which are ignored at the peril of one’s policymaking career. The silent opprobrium official Washington dumps on those who even hint at decriminalizing drugs is so severe (i.e. in some institutions it can be a job killer) that even very intelligent policy pundits completely ignore the issue in their prescriptive policy papers.
The typical mainstream Washington think tank policy paper calls either for more interdiction and military counter-drug support (Republican), or less emphasis on military approaches and greater focus on demand reduction at home, and institution-building in the drug producing countries (Democrat).
However, there aren’t any mainstream think tank policy experts (except at the Cato Institute) who will say, for the record, that US drug policy is an utter failure, any way you slice the issue: historically, economically, politically and socially
For example, here are some policy recommendations contained in a recent policy paper titled “Helping Mexico Help Itself,” authored by Shannon K. O’Neil, Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign relations:
[This CFR paper was chosen at random, and is cited here simply to illustrate a point. No criticism is intended, nor should any be inferred.]
“What can and should the United States do?”
“First, the United States should ‘do no harm’ to its southern neighbor. This, essentially, involves the United States getting its own house in order and enforcing its own laws….Enforcing U.S. gun laws and inspecting traffic on the border going south — not just north — would help reduce the tools of violence in Mexico.”
“South-bound traffic inspections would also hinder the smuggling of large amounts of cash from U.S. drug sales…The successful CIA-based Foreign Terrorist Asset Tracking Center, ramped up in the years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to thwart terrorist financing, should be replicated to go after drug-related money.”
“It is also time for the United States to shift the emphasis of its drug policy toward demand reduction. Numerous studies show that a dollar spent in the United States in the drug war is vastly more effective than those put toward eradication and interdiction abroad. Furthermore, a study by RAND found that, in the longer term, treatment is more than five times as effective as conventional enforcement. By reducing the number of hardcore addicts (and their willingness to pay almost anything for a fix), prevention and treatment can lower the drug profits that buy guns, corrupt law enforcement agents, and undermine the Mexican government.”
“The United States should also work with Mexico to tackle this mutual problem. Until just last year, the United States provided less than $40 million dollars a year in security funding to its southern neighbor — in stark contrast to the over $500 million designated for Colombia. This changed with the passage of the Merida Initiative last June, which provides Mexico with $1.4 billion worth of equipment, software, and technical assistance over a three-year period.”
“While an important corrective from the past, the Merida Initiative cannot be the full extent of U.S. involvement in Mexico’s security. It needs to be just the start of a more comprehensive program to the broader — and perhaps more intractable problems — that Mexico faces.”
“Building Institutions: While explicitly recognizing the need to reform and strengthen police and judicial institutions, Merida’s first year of funding is equipment heavy. Given the long-time horizons of institution-building work, back-loading U.S. support for these efforts pushes the long-term sustainability of any successes further down the road.”
“In addition, the Merida Initiative ignores the most difficult aspects of Mexico’s situation — namely the failure of state and local law enforcement. Drug money decimated these front lines through cooptation and repression… The deep-seated dysfunction of the local police and court systems forced Calderon to rely on the military. But the military cannot permanently fill this void.”
“Mexico must strengthen state and local law enforcement to democratically reassert control throughout its territory. The United States (and Mexico) must recognize this reality, and refocus efforts accordingly.”
“Drug trafficking is a mutually-created problem demanding cooperative solutions. As long as U.S. demand for illegal drugs persists, vendors from Mexico (and elsewhere) will supply this lucrative market. Increased cooperation, funding, and law enforcement actions will not “end” the drug trade. Realistically, the best the United States and Mexico can hope for (given the presence of the illegal drug market) is for organized crime to decline from a threat to the state in Mexico to a law enforcement problem, similar to the illegal drug business in the United States and now in countries like Colombia.”
“The United States and Mexico are now inextricably intertwined through their economies, their societies, and their security. The United States benefits from Mexico’s successes, but also shares its challenges. In this new phase of the war against drugs, neither country can afford to lose.”
These basically are the standard Washington boilerplate drug policy recommendations that think tank policy experts were making back in the 1990s and 1980s. With some variations in tone and policy proposals, it could easily have been penned by an analyst with by the Heritage Foundation, Center for Strategic and International Studies, the American Enterprise Institute or the Inter-American Dialogue, among others.
Why not just be straightforward and say, without parsing the issue, that current US drug policy is a failure, and is responsible for increasing social and political instability in many countries in Latin America and other parts of the world?
Because proposing outright decriminalization is a political non-starter, too many negatives and no positives.
This is why the call by three former Latin American presidents for a tectonic shift in US drug policy received only a brief burst of international news media coverage, but generated zero bounce in Washington.
Links on this issue.