Attempting to Control Illicit Drug Supply Is Futile

With her candid words last month about U.S. responsibility for the carnage caused by the drug trade in Mexico, Secretary of State Clinton got the conversation headed in the right direction. With President Obama headed to Mexico, he can use the opportunity to reinforce the point – the U.S. gets it, and we will do a better job reducing demand for illicit drugs here at home.

It’s no secret that while demand remains strong, so too will supply, and efforts to curb drug availability will be frustrated. Obama’s choice to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Gil Kerlikowske, has promised that U.S. drug policy will be “rigorously assessed” and focus on “evidence-based approaches to reduce demand.” Those would indeed be welcome departures from a U.S. approach that for decades has been obsessed with controlling supply, but has manifestly failed to do so.

The latest evidence of the failure to shrink supply comes from ONDCP itself, whose new report confirms that cocaine prices have been falling since the early 1980s, and that even fairly large price spikes have always been reversed eventually. U.S. retail cocaine prices declined every year from 2004 through 2007, while purity remained high. In 2007, cocaine’s price settled to the lowest level on record, nearly 22 percent below the 1999 price, before Plan Colombia was launched.

Annual Price Purity Chart 4

In the drug policy debate, it’s long past time for the burden of proof to shift to those who would continue doing more of the same and expect a different result. Defenders of the status quo policies will likely continue to paint “light at the end of the tunnel” scenarios, dismissing the chart as “old data,” and predicting imminent supply-side breakthroughs. But such views should be considered in light of the actual historical evidence, not mere wishful thinking. With his visit to Mexico, Obama can take the next step on the way to a more rational, humane and effective drug policy by recognizing that the supply-side approach hasn’t worked, and aligning expectations with this reality.

By: John Walsh, Senior Associate, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)