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Time to Debate a Change in Washington’s Failed Latin American Drug Policies

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– Unrelenting forces prove their strength in the war on drugs, but not their wisdom
– American prohibition on drugs compounds the problem it was meant to cure
– It is time to reexamine failed drug policies and learn new vocabulary words: decriminalization and legalization

It is time for policymakers to acknowledge that drug prohibition is inadequate and requires immediate attention, discussion and qualification. Despite 37 years of universal cooperation pursuant to the United Nations General Assembly resolution 39/141, which is the basis of the U.S. anti-drug policy; it is a statute which regularly has proven to be ineffective. It also has adversely contributed to fanning grave civil disorder and broken societies in nations across the globe.

Although there have been some governmental successes, notably in Colombia, drug cartels have proven adaptive and relentless in the pursuit of their interests. These cartels are essentially businesses, and as such, they are determined to meet the enormous and growing demand for their products in order to guarantee the continuation of their immense profits. Unfortunately, governments such as that of the U.S. refuse to acknowledge that as long as the demand for illicit substances persists, there will be businessmen eager to supply the market.

Although social and health problems accompany the recreational abuse of drugs, the criminalization of their use is primarily responsible for the surge in crime, corruption and violence throughout the Americas. Under the prevailing conditions of mounting crime and violence, due to ineffectual law enforcement, it is difficult for societies to maintain respect for law and for governments to preserve the social order and the traditional functions of the state. Recently, drug-based disorder is threatening to destabilize Mexico, raising concerns in the U.S. that it will have a “failed state” on its border. Such a scenario holds grave implications for this country’s national security.

The Persistent Threat of Drug Trafficking
The demand for illegal drugs in the U.S. and Europe has supported international black markets and burdened developing countries for decades. Colombia, in particular, haphazardly has been addressing this conflict for over forty years. Every administration since the 1960s has struggled to combat illegal drug trafficking and its concomitant violence and corruption. Colombia has been successful from time to time in its battle against drugs but almost always at a heavy price in terms of human rights violations which have cost tens of thousands of lives of mostly innocent civilians. This was most clearly reflected in the elimination of the top drug lords of the Medellín and Cali Cartels, the two largest drug organizations in the 1980s and 1990s. However, the government failed to dismantle the market. Conversely, their apparent success gave birth to many smaller organizations that today, are responsible for Colombia’s standing as the world’s major producer of coca and cocaine as well as a significant exporter of heroin.

A Failed Attempt in Colombia
Despite every effort made to curb trafficking and consumption, the drug cartels have proven resilient. Plan Colombia is the now $6 billion product of Colombian and U.S. collaboration mainly aimed at combating the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Since its implementation in 2000, coca cultivation episodically has diminished. However, even at this late date, the Colombian security forces have failed to eliminate the FARC. The illegal drug trade also has become a tribute to the ideological struggle between a relatively free-market Colombia and its two professed socialist neighbors, Venezuela and Ecuador. Each of those countries has been proven to be involved in some form of liaison with guerilla forces associated with some phase of trafficking. The support, however, is based not upon the drug dealing particularly, but rather upon the fact that the FARC is of the revolutionary left and an ally of the moderate left, whose prestige and numbers seem to be growing in election after election throughout South America. The harm done by the rebels’ drug dealing is secondary to the perceived benefit to the left of seeing the Colombian government, Washington’s great friend, being undermined.

In any case, if Colombia’s anti-drug campaign has enjoyed success in curtailing the FARC, then it will only be a matter of time before its illegal business relocates to another Latin American country. This resettlement has happened previously with cartels in other cocaine producing countries, such as Peru and Bolivia. More recently, a similar displacement model for a fungible crop has surfaced in Mexico, where facilities producing methamphetamine and other drugs were established after the U.S. exerted intensified pressure on distributors in their country of origin.

How Will the U.S. React to Conflict Lingering Along the Border?
Like Colombia, Mexico is neck deep in a raging battle against relentless drug organizations that have successfully have infiltrated every aspect of Mexican life. Up until recently, annual tourism attracted approximately 4 million visitors to Mexico’s archaeological sites and beaches. However, a downward trend in effect right now is largely due to a travel advisory issued by the U.S. Department of State warning against any travel to Mexico. As a result, the tourism industry has declined 50 percent since 2005. Needless to say, this free fall has proven disastrous for the country’s economy. Increasingly, another trend is in effect. The nation’s youth is today being inspired by the wealth and power of the drug lords and are throwing their lot in with some of the least desirable elements of the trade.

Mexican cartels have created a production and delivery system that today surpasses that of the Colombians, contributing most of the world’s supply of marijuana, 80 percent of its crystal meth and 14 percent of the heroin being sold in the U.S. – Mexico total drug market which now adds up to an annual revenue approaching $40 billion. The magnitude of the cartel’s influence and prestige was most clearly conveyed this year, when Forbes Magazine labeled Joaquin Guzman Loera, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, as the 701st wealthiest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of $1 billion.

An Ongoing Conundrum
Organized crime in Mexico is arguably the second greatest threat to U.S. national security behind Iran, as some critics would maintain. As a result of the country’s increasing lawlessness and its proximity to the U.S., Mexico is vital to the global narcotics industry because it offers a distribution corridor and staging base into the world’s largest market, immediately north of its border. Proximity to the U.S. is so valuable that severe violence is the primary means of conflict resolution among Mexican cartels competing to gain or obstruct access to transportation routes across the border.

The resulting violence has contributed to the classification of Mexican drug cartels as the “biggest organized crime threat to the United States,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported that there are at least 230 cities and towns overrun with gang operations that are continuing their advance throughout the southwestern United States. Over ten thousand people have died in recent months as a consequence of the prohibition in drug usage, which has paved the way for the struggle among cartels, as well as between them and the Mexican authorities. Inadvertently, prohibition is the reason why cartels’ are so powerful and that the use of violence is the preferred weapon to intimidate government officials and police. These have destabilized the state’s security apparatus and undermined general confidence in the workings of government. This could prove to be a fatal combination. Now that the army is within distance of itself being bought, as military units in neighborhoods along the U.S. – Mexican border and in major cities such as Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo – which often serve as trafficking routes into the U.S. – with the latter being the primary base of Los Zetas, the paramilitary wing of the Gulf Cartel, which is hands down the most violent drug organization in Mexico.

Los Zetas threaten the Mexican army’s internal coherence and are responsible for much of the violence occurring along the border. Their banners openly attempt to suborn military and public support, advertising that “the Zetas want you, soldier or ex-soldier. We offer a good salary, food and benefits for your family. Don’t suffer any more mistreatment and don’t go hungry.” Los Zetas’ membership includes many veterans of the Mexican army’s elite Special Forces unit, some of whom were also trained in the U.S. Military School of the Americas.

Calderón’s Last Stand
The Washington Times reported a statement by a U.S. defense official acknowledging that the Mexican President is “fighting for his life” and “for the life of Mexico right now.” Calderón came up with his latest measure when he took the unpopular step of deploying Mexico’s army among the civilian populace and exposed the military to an environment of corruption and abuse, forming a temptation that originally had given birth to Los Zetas.

Drug prohibition has produced an ill – proportioned expenditure of human life and resources in Colombia and Mexico, let alone the U.S. President Calderón has committed his country to the Merida Initiative, modeled on Plan Colombia. It adds up to being a $400 million scheme to help the Mexican government acquire resources that will help them locate the cartels, but not necessarily physically dismantle them. Despite the Merida Initiative, however, the conflict will continue as it has in Colombia. Surveillance aircraft supplied by the U.S. will not be enough to put the military on an equal footing that is barely distinguishable with the drug organizations with which it is warring. The cartels have enormous resources; their almost unlimited wealth enables them to employ planes, boats, submarines, guerilla forces and a plethora of modern weaponry to sustain their trade. Regularly defying the law and already having killed over ten thousand people in recent months, the cartels will not succumb to big rhetoric but meek government initiatives, when the demand that exists for their products is so great and their funds so limitless.

The War at Home
The U.S. federal government implemented an anti-drug prohibition on illicit substances through the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. That legislation gave birth to a web of federal entities dedicated to enforcing drug prohibition. These bureaucratic “shops,” such as the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as well as sub-bureaucracies within the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are responsible for the investigation and prosecution of all drugs produced or sold in the country.

Yet, even in the U.S., where efforts at every level of government and law enforcement are vigorous, the prohibitionist policy fails to significantly lead to disband the production and trafficking of narcotics. Furthermore, the incarceration of substance abusers consistently proves inadequate to subdue domestic drug demand. Drug consumption in the U.S. continues to rise and the country remains the largest import market for illicit substances in the world.

In a 2009 release by the CATO Institute, drug prohibition is condemned for its massive government expenditure amounting to nearly $19 billion per year in U.S. federal spending alone. Despite thirty years of such efforts, 82 percent of high-school seniors have consistently found it “relatively easy to obtain marijuana;” nearly 2.5 million people were treated for drug related problems in 2007 alone; and incarcerations for violent crimes throughout the past two decades still amounts to far less than the 1.5 million persons apprehended on drug – related charges annually in this country in recent years.

No Solution Yet
Basically, American drug laws are unenforceable domestically. From time to time in the form of a spike, law enforcement agencies can pressure the market at home, which in turn, produces periods of shortage. However, during those periods of government-driven scarcity, the price of the drug-of-the-day rises, drawing additional would – be entrepreneurs into the market. Profits, generated from the 90 percent premiums on the product which they provide, will continue to attract ever more clever importers, foolhardy “mules” and sociopathic gunmen, thus propagating a vicious cycle without interruption. It is urgent that legislators, law enforcement officials and the general public confront the prohibitive cost and baleful social consequences of these chronically misplaced efforts.

The bottom line is that prohibition is not working. Supply and demand make governmental regulation of almost any market fail at a dispiritingly high rate. At the moment, 50 percent of the federal prison population is made up of drug offenders. According to the American Corrections Association, states spend over $6 billion per year to hold drug offenders. These individuals, similar to alcohol abusers and nicotine addicts, have a health condition that should be addressed medically. The current system neglects this reality, consequently placing sick and vulnerable people in an environment where they learn to mature their criminal skills.

Despite the fact that the U.S. spends an ordinate amount funding the prohibition effort, and noisily condemns the use of recreational drugs, it remains a bad, drug-addicted neighbor. Building border fences high enough and moats deep enough to restrict drug imports will only prompt U.S. talent to produce what might be called generics – that is, synthetic drugs that mimic the effects of the imported product. The market will see to it.

International Naivety
The resolution adopted in 1984 by the UN General Assembly is predictably ambitious. According to the stipulations of this agreement, all nations are committed to make a cooperative effort in the prevention and suppression of illicit narcotics trafficking. In addition, it pledges aggressive measures against organizations that undermine international efforts to establish a drug free world. The UN, however, is a large bureaucracy. It can produce platitudes, but rarely does the international organization develop daring solutions to profound problems that frustrate social progress. There are too many committees with too many toes on which one dares not step. In regards to drug policy, the institution flies the flag of failure across the globe. On a regular basis, evidence shows the stated anti-drug policy is a pretense and a failure.

Maintaining a complete disregard for the need to develop an alternative strategy, the UN International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) released its Annual Report for 2008. In this report, the body stubbornly reaffirms its commitment to the current anti-drug prohibition strategy. Despite the world’s booming drug trade, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) does not even raise the question of new strategies or alternative plans. It intends to stay the course, calling for governments to align their pertinent laws and emphasizing the need for international collaboration to combat the more pernicious drug organizations.

In every country, regardless of the stringency of the law and its enforcement, drug consumption has consistently been on the rise. Every consuming country recognizes this fact. However, instead of addressing the situation with a greater sense of pragmatism, current regulations and Washington’s combative strategy are sustained, thus breeding the prevailing level of conflicts encountered throughout Latin America and in other producing regions.

Cease the Stubbornness
The drug trade will not vanish; it will adapt. Prohibition diminishes the U.S.’ credibility, marking it as a fantasist, with yet another unrealistic, unenforceable component in its foreign policy. The army of drug producers, shippers and dealers are a force built on U.S. failed policy; they are rich, powerful and dangerous, because the consuming nations are locked into a pretense. Continuing to practice the current anti-drug policy is a failure to acknowledge the consuming nations’ immense contribution to the problem. Clearly, humankind, in every culture and historical epoch, has demonstrated a desire for euphorics; that desire was not suppressed by alcohol prohibition, nor will it be eradicated by modern anti-drug efforts.

It is imperative that consuming countries breakaway from the taboo that shuns debate. People must understand that as long as the prohibition remains in effect, the black market will thrive. It is absurd to deny the obvious fact that drug production and distribution are driven by unstoppable market forces. Progress will not be made if there is a refusal to critically examine policies. An educational approach has been proven in anti-tobacco campaigns to develop positive results. Building from that modest success, Washington should alter its policies in order to assume the leadership that it purports to exercise. Leaders sometimes take daring stances; they lead from the front. Drug policy provides this country an opportunity to reclaim its position of leadership.

Tweak the system so it works for us
As prohibition continues to produce its various manifestations of failure, it becomes more evident that a sound measure to combat the current drug-produced social corrosion would be legalization. Recreational drugs should be legalized, licensed and taxed. In 2005, a Harvard study concluded that the U.S. could save $7.7 billion per year in state and federal expenditures on prohibition enforcement and gain a minimum of $6.2 billion in annual tax revenues if personal consumption of solely marijuana were taxed like that of alcohol and tobacco products. If they were, incentives for illegal dealing would be removed and the traffic could be better controlled.

The resulting tax revenues would be a social benefit carrying no more moral opprobrium than lottery income or liquor taxes. Drug prevention and rehab programs could be located and funded where they belong, in public health agencies. While this would begin a process to address domestic problems, drug-producing countries such as Mexico and Colombia would be provided a period of relative tranquility to establish a greater degree of law and order at home. They might thereby resume the effort to enter the world economy as something other than a supplier of untrained labor and illegal commodities.

The prohibitionist policy has used tortuous apologias to defend itself for over 30 years, yet has failed to deliver a drug free world. Billions have been spent only to produce a more violent habitat and greater volume of lost lives and destroyed property. The current policy does not work. Conflict related to drug production and trafficking project has no end in sight as long as drug legalization, arguments and evidence are proscribed as heretical. The license fees on drugs would fund treatment and education programs while drug enforcement expenses would be decreased drastically. Most importantly however, legalizing and licensing recreational narcotics under a soft drug policy would deprive the cartels of the wealth that makes them so dangerous. That loss of funds would curtail their capacity to corrupt society by purchasing the security and judicial arms of government. That single stroke – well within the American tradition of liberty – could be the greatest benefit that our foreign policy could provide to several of our Latin American neighbors.