The White House’s new drug control strategy may have to work around Mexico

A pallet covered in green tarp is lifted onto a Coast Guard ship.
AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
A palette loaded with bundles of seized cocaine and marijuana is lowered down by a crane, as the U.S. Coast Guard unloads more than one billion dollars worth of seized drugs from the Coast Guard Cutter James at Port Everglades, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The Coast Guard said the haul included approximately 54,500 pounds of cocaine and 15,800 pounds of marijuana from multiple interdictions in the Caribbean Sea and the eastern Pacific.

Although the term fell out of favor a long time ago, people still like to talk about the “war on drugs.” Words matter, and when you declare “war” on something, as Americans are wont to do, there is an expectation that there will be a clear winner and loser.  

Last year marked 50 years since President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, and while it’s still not clear exactly what success looks like, it certainly doesn’t feel like we’re winning. In the last 12 months, over 106,800 Americans died from drug overdoses, the highest on record, and an astonishing 500 percent increase since 2001. And that is why the newly released National Drug Control Strategy is so important. 

The 2022 National Drug Control Strategy outlines the Biden administration’s plan to reduce illicit drug use and the associated harms and helps guide the efforts of 16 federal government agencies and departments involved in the overlapping facets of drug control: supply reduction, demand reduction, harm reduction and treatment. While much of the attention has been on the administration’s growing acceptance of harm reduction measures and the emphasis on treatment — two historically underutilized approaches to drug control — it also highlights the continued importance of supply reduction and the need to disrupt drug trafficking organizations and their illicit financial activities.   

The Biden administration is right to employ a whole of government approach to combat the drug crisis, and although the ink is barely dry on the new strategy, one of the key pillars of the new strategy — reducing the supply of illicit substances through international engagement — is already in serious jeopardy.   

Counterdrug cooperation between the United States and Mexico has been in shambles since U.S. authorities arrested former Mexican Secretary of Defense Salvador Cienfuegos in October 2020. The U.S. subsequently dismissed the charges against Cienfuegos, but the damage had been done. Following this incident, the Mexican government promptly issued a new national security law that crippled law enforcement cooperation with the U.S. and shuttered elite counterdrug units vetted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to help battle the Mexican drug cartels.   

Eighteen months later, tensions between the two countries are still running high, with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador doubling down on his policy of “hugs, not bullets” in confronting drug trafficking organizations like the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), and regularly invoking Mexican sovereignty in his dealings with the United States. Barring a significant policy shift, relations between the two countries are likely to remain frosty, and the flow of illicit drugs to the U.S. is likely to continue unabated.   

The Biden administration should continue to engage with like-minded partners to combat drug production and trafficking around the world. However, without more robust support from source countries like Mexico — the primary supplier of illicit drugs to the U.S. — it must prioritize those elements of the National Drug Control Strategy it can actually control. Things like strengthening drug interdiction and law enforcement capabilities along the Southwest border, aggressively pursuing drug trafficking networks operating throughout the U.S., expanding evidence-based prevention strategies, supporting common sense harm reduction initiatives like increased funding for Naloxone and drug testing strips and ensuring greater access to quality drug treatment.   

Enhancing security cooperation with Mexico is a laudable goal, but it takes a willing partner. With hundreds of Americans dying each day, including an increasing number of teenagers and minorities, the U.S. cannot wait for bilateral relations to improve. The U.S. must focus its limited time, money, and resources on those drug control strategies most likely to get results — now. 

Jim Crotty is an associate vice president at The Cohen Group, a strategic advisory firm in Washington, D.C., and the former deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.  The views stated in this article are his own. 

Tags Andrés Manuel López Obrador Biden Drug Enforcement Administration Drug overdose Drugs in the United States Joe Biden Opioid crisis Politics of the United States Richard Nixon Salvador Cienfuegos US-Mexico relations War on Drugs White House Office of National Drug Control Policy

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