U.S. ready to revisit anti-drug strategy

December 14, 2009


If you had asked me 10 years ago whether the United States will ever change its interdiction-focused counternarcotics policies — and perhaps even decriminalize marijuana consumption at home — I would have told you, “never.” Today, I say, “perhaps.”

Last week, in a tacit admission that current U.S. anti-drug policies are not working, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill to create an independent commission to review whether the U.S. anti-drug policies of the past three decades in Latin America are producing positive results.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where supporters say it has a good chance to pass, given its bipartisan support in the House. The 10-member panel, modeled after the 9/11 Commission that made recommendations to Congress and the White House after the 2001 terrorist attacks, would have to issue its report in 12 months.

What’s interesting about the planned independent drug policy commission is that the idea didn’t come from a pro-legalization advocate or any leftist or libertarian crusader. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., opposes decriminalization of drugs for nonmedical use, and is as mainstream as members of Congress come.

But Engel’s frustration over the results of the U.S. war on drugs is symptomatic of Washington’s growing skepticism about U.S. anti-drug policies these days.

Since 1980, the United States has spent nearly $14 billion trying to stop drug-smuggling from Latin America, the bill says. While U.S. drug consumption has declined significantly as a percentage of the population, there are still 25.7 million users of marijuana, 5.3 million users of cocaine and 453,000 users of heroin. Meanwhile, U.S. law enforcement and prison systems are overwhelmed by prosecutions on drug-consumption charges.

Interdiction-focused policies have not changed Latin America’s status as the world’s largest exporter of cocaine and marijuana, and drug-related violence in the region has — if anything — increased. In Mexico alone, 5,661 people died in drug-related violence last year, more than double the previous year’s total.

“Billions upon billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have been spent. In spite of our efforts, the positive results are few and far between,” says Engel, who chairs the House Western Hemisphere subcommittee. “Clearly, the time has come to take a fresh look at our counternarcotics efforts.”

The proposed commission will, among other things, take a new look at U.S. anti-drug programs such as Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

Engel said that it will “assess all aspects of our drug policy,” although he clarified in an e-mail to me that decriminalization of marijuana is not part of his intentions for the commission.

Earlier this year, former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia signed a joint declaration suggesting that the time has come to consider decriminalization of marijuana — studies show that it’s not more harmful than alcohol and tobacco, they said — and to focus on education and prevention to reduce drug consumption.

If I had any doubt that the public mood toward anti-drug policies in the United States is changing, a conversation with former U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Manuel Rocha, convinced me of that. Rocha, who was known as a hard-line enforcer of U.S. anti-drug policies when he headed the 950-strong embassy staff in Bolivia until 2002, told me that he supports the Cardoso-Zedillo-Gaviria statement.

“Things have changed,” Rocha told me. “We have to be intellectually honest, and reach the conclusion that the time has come to change the focus of our failed policies.”

My opinion: Washington is on the verge of beginning a taboo-free discussion on its drug policies that was unthinkable a few years ago.

There are three main reasons for this: First, the U.S. focus on “the war on drugs” of the 1990s has been replaced by the war on terrorism following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Second, the 2008 economic crisis is moving U.S. lawmakers to review how government funds are spent. Third, the drug-related violence in Mexico is creating growing anxiety in U.S. national security circles.

Most likely, the proposed independent commission will not recommend decriminalization of marijuana, but will install the issue as a legitimate debate. Meantime, the Obama Administration will soon announce a new National Drug Control Strategy that will focus more on demand reduction than its predecessors.

At any rate, it’s clear there is a growing sentiment that the war on drugs is not working, and that we need to further focus on drug consumers rather than drug producers.


Paul R Getto 8 years, 6 months ago

Drug, legal and illegal, are closely entertwined with politics, economics and racial prejudice. The History Channel has shown an excellent series of shows on this. Naturally, since the government is already addicted to the money they get from booze and tobacco, some drugs are better than others.

marcdeveraux 8 years, 6 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

Corey Williams 8 years, 6 months ago

Jacob123 (Anonymous) says… "Big government is always the answer and always works well unless it is doing something the lefties don’t like."

How about this: the rightwingers' cry for "state's rights" ends when medical marijuana bills are passed.

Richard Heckler 8 years, 6 months ago

When looking into DEA expenditures some has been spent protecting oil pipelines... hmmmmmmmmm granted that is one of the most addicting of drugs. Alcohol and tobacco kills or injures people everyday.

However waging war in other countries over drug use in america seemed a bit none of our business. If the problem is here why not spend trillions treating the problem here.

OR make use legal,tax it,create jobs etc etc. Could reduce the impact on courts and prisons( very very very expensive treatement).

Hey USA farmers returning to growing hemp could establish a new industry for america once again.

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