Time for a smarter approach to counternarcotics
The United States is crossing another grim milestone: 2020 overdoses appear likely to have surpassed the 2019 record of 71,000 deaths. The main culprit is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 50 times more potent than heroin.
In the half-century since President Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” the U.S. has weathered multiple epidemics: heroin in the 1960s and early 70s, cocaine in the 1980s, and opioids since the 1990s. Despite spending tens of billions to cut foreign drugs off at the source or stop them in transit, addictive substances are as plentiful today as ever — and more lethal.
So, has U.S. drug policy failed? Only if we define it as a war to be won or lost rather than a constantly mutating threat to public health and rule of law.
We may never end illegal drug trafficking, just as we cannot totally eliminate substance abuse and addiction. But we can better manage this deadly trade and the violence surrounding it with comprehensive strategies to address underlying causes and conditions, assess progress, and eliminate or mitigate harms.
Congress created the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission to evaluate U.S. foreign policies designed to curb drug trafficking and provide recommendations for more effective efforts going forward.
Our report documents important achievements. U.S. assistance programs in Colombia provide licit livelihoods in coca-growing regions. Capacity building in Mexico has strengthened the criminal justice system. Police reform, anti-corruption, and violence prevention efforts have helped the troubled nations of Central America’s Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — make progress — albeit unevenly — toward more effective governance.
In recent decades U.S. policies have shifted away from simply interdicting drugs and eradicating illicit crops toward also — and more importantly in the long run — promoting development and strengthening the rule of law.
These reforms need to accelerate, keeping pace with the changing nature of organized crime in the hemisphere. Transnational criminal organizations do far more than just traffic in drugs; they engage in a variety of other dangerously destructive rackets, including migrant smuggling, illegal mining and logging, extortion, and kidnapping.
The U.S. government needs a more agile, adaptive international strategy, better coordinated at the top and more flexible on the ground. In Washington, the State Department should take the interagency lead, cooperating with agencies including USAID and the Departments of Defense, Justice, Treasury, and Homeland Security, to develop a more coherent long-term strategy.
Meanwhile U.S. embassies in the region should negotiate country and/or regional assistance agreements or compacts that address local conditions and needs. These agreements should outline the roles and responsibilities of both the U.S. and host governments, ensuring that both sides are invested in success and accountable for failure.
The United States needs to move away from its often single-minded focus on drug interdiction, crop eradication, and other traditional counternarcotics tools. These efforts can cause considerable harm while doing little either to curb the flow of synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl, or to take down the complex criminal empires that profit from them.
Instead, the U.S. should prioritize anti-money-laundering. This means investing more in investigatory units to uncover illicit financial flows and to dismantle the networks that allow U.S. dealers and Mexican cartels to buy drugs or chemical precursors from countries like China or India.
The U.S. should also expand programs to bolster rule of law and fight corruption. We will never be able to control the flow of drugs unless we have partners who are willing and able to take on the powerful criminals that terrorize their own citizens and bribe or intimidate public officials.
Finally, the U.S. must address its own public health crisis by investing more in treatment and prevention at home. We cannot control the supply of dangerous drugs without also reducing demand and we cannot curb demand without also limiting supply.
The U.S. may never declare victory against the criminal organizations that traffic in dangerous drugs. But better U.S. policies can reduce the harm to Americans from drug abuse and to Latin Americans facing the dangers of organized crime.
Shannon K. O’Neil is chair of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission and vice president for studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Mary Speck is the Commission’s executive director.
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