The United States has fought the war on drugs on two fronts. Across the hemisphere, we finance foreign security forces. The Obama Administration, for instance, trumpets its “Beyond Merida Initiative,” which helps Mexico’s military and police take on organized crime. In more select cases, we also intervene with our own military or Drug Enforcement Agency paramilitary forces. On the domestic front, imprisonment is our most visible weapon for dependents and dealers alike. All told, upwards of 65 percent of federal drug control spending is directed toward domestic law enforcement, interdiction, and other “international programming.” Yet all the while, the war is moving closer to our southern border.
A host of ethical and emotional issues are entangled in this two-front response. But the economic picture is clear. The United States is struggling with a debt burden unmatched since 1951. Spending on a drug war that delivers the wrong results is intolerable. It comes at the expense of worthier priorities and imposes upon our ability to pay down this debt.
Addressing the challenges of addiction and smuggling in a wider frame would be more affordable, judicious, and sustainable. In an era of declining budgets, a significant portion of security-themed interdiction and eradication assistance should be reallocated between debt reduction and other programs that use more effective tactics to counter the drug trade, including public health efforts that treat addiction and strategically targeted development assistance.
This recalibration requires us to accept that we face a health crisis more than a war. Individuals mistakenly choose to experiment with drugs, but individuals do not choose to become addicts. Instead, as is widely acknowledged, addiction is a disease, and diseases are treated most effectively and efficiently by doctors. In that light, government spending to imprison addicts is as shortsighted as working to restrict international supply as though it could substitute for controlling our own demand.
Domestic demand restrictions are not the only answer, of course, but the traditional approach to countering supply needs rebalancing. Assisting foreign security services’ interdiction and eradication efforts should play a role. But contributing to long term economic opportunity and the rule of law deserve equal consideration as more durable and affordable responses, even if less visually satisfying. This can help leverage our existing investments in global development, better prioritize scarce resources, and provide tangible benefit to our national anti-drug strategy.
Exploring this more reasoned, budget-informed path cannot but help but yield a more successful and disciplined counter-drug strategy. It could save millions from unnecessary violence, and restore opportunity and hope across entire regions torn apart by violent crime. And, in exchange, we would get more restrained and effective government.
Leatherman is a research analyst with the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense Program at the Stimson Center in Washington. Finlay is a senior associate and director of the Managing Across Boundaries Program at Stimson.