The Ethics of the US Role in the Drug War

In recent weeks, the United States has come under increasing pressure from Latin American leaders to rethink its drug control policy—and specifically, to at least start talking about decriminalization. As analysts such as Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance have pointed out this week, this is a big shift: At first it was just academics and activists advocating for legalization; then it was former heads of state. Now, the sitting presidents of countries including Colombia and Guatemala are demanding that Washington change course. Earlier this month when Vice President Joe Biden visited the region, he got an earful from the leaders of MexicoGuatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica to that effect.

This debate is long overdue for many practical reasons; every pundit in every relevant country seems to agree that the drug war long ago failed. But there is also a very good ethical reason to start rethinking current US strategy. As the world's largest consumers of narcotics, the American market has stoked violence, conflict, armed insurgency, corruption, and human rights abuses abroad. It would be akin to if U.S. consumers had bought diamonds from West African warlords in Sierra Leone and Liberia during conflicts there a decade ago. Whether those purchases are legal or not, they'd support groups that take a heavily civilian toll. Today, American money (and guns—another story) are propping up the drug wars faster than any government agencies, U.S. or foreign, can fight back. More than 50,000 have been killed in Mexico since 2006 alone. The president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla,  expressed the frustration that many in Latin America are experiencing when she told Biden "we demand the United States assume responsibility.''

Of course, one might argue that it's not up to the United States to help sort out drug war conflicts abroad. And anyway, Washington certainly has contributed money to the cause—more than $6 billion in Colombia and another several billion now in Mexico. Biden promised to ask for more funds to assist countries in Central America during his visit earlier this month.

No amount of aid, however, can de-link the United States from these conflicts—and it's this piece that has long frustrated many Latin American leaders. The United States isn't just a foreign country, helping out troubled neighbors. It's actually the very country whose consumers are keeping the market bouyant. It is part of this equation. So when Mexico goes to war with its cartels, the United States is, essentially, also at war.

In order to extricate itself from this conflict, the United States would have to cease to provide a lucrative market for drugs. And here's where the argument for decriminalization comes in.

From a practical standpoint, the idea behind decriminalization is twofold. There's the obvious logic that gets a lot of play: As soon as a substance is legal, the price drops and the profits for those who transport it do too. This is particularly important in the drug market, since the big money is made by the middle men—the very people who live and die on the price in market. The more dangers they face, and the more difficult it is to traffic, the more limited is the supply—and higher the payoff. It's a high-stakes game, but decriminalizing the contraband would, it's hoped, crash the market.

The second bit though is, I think, even more important—and often missed when we talk about decriminalization in the American domestic context. Think about the drug trafficking system as an hourglass, with the substance moving from one end to the other. At the source, there are tons of producers of, say, cocaine—the farmers who are growing coca in the Andes region. There's many of them, so the profits are spread thin; most are barely scraping by. At the other wide end of the hourglass are the dealers in the United States and Europe. There's also a lot of them; margins are small. But in the middle—the traffickers who monopolize their transport market by annexing territory via violence and intimidation—well, that's where the money is. That's also where the violence, corruption, and state—capture takes place in Latin America.

Right now, a lot of resources are devoted to a) stopping production of the raw material (coca or poppy, for example,) and b) arresting and prosecuting the drug dealers. We're tackling the heaviest and least lucrative ends of the drug trade, and missing out on the middle. What if, instead of putting drug dealers in jail, we used those same resources to help build a better police force in the middle of the trade cycle—say in Honduras and Guatemala—to help prevent the drugs from ever reaching US soil? That's something decriminalization of posession would allow us to do.

Yes, we're already training some policemen down south, and helping local governments build "capacity" to fight back. But the efforts are woefully insufficient. Honduras's internationally-vetted drug control unit is a whopping 42 people. By the way, the newly-released US Drug Control Strategy notes that "79 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights departing South America first land in Honduras" on their way to the United States. Good luck guessing who—government or traffickers—has the advantage.

Decriminalization raises ethical considerations in the US domestic context as well, of course. If we did legalize and redirect resources, what would happen to the consumers of drugs—who also suffer incredible harm? I'm not a public health expert by any means, but the research seems to indicate that treatings drug problems as public health problems rather than crimes encourages people to seek treatment and minimizes the social damage of narcotic use. This is something researchers seem to have known for a while: Back in 1999, a National Institutes of Health study noted that current drug policy encouraged users to avoid seeking help until the situation was dire enough to be life threatening. The author concludes that a rise in emergency room visits, overdose deaths, and HIV infections among users were the results of "policies that criminalize and marginalize drug users and increase drug-related risks to life and health."

This is not to say that decriminalization would be a panacea; it wouldn't. We're past that point. The organized criminals who traffic narcotics deal in other contraband as well. But we could at least start talking about it as an option, among many, on the table. The current approach is not working—and the proof is in the fast-failing states such as Guatemala and Honduras, where the economy, politics, and law enforcement have been capsized by a behemoth of drug-trafficking operations.

This is an uphill battle—even the conversation. Domestic opposition to relaxing drug laws is just too strong, and there's always one election or another to worry about. I just wonder how long it will last without seriously compromising American regional alliances in Latin America. The region is economically booming and decreasingly reliant on U.S. assistance to organize its security policy. (Central America is the exception, but regional Latin America assistance is on the rise.) So what might happen from here is that regional countries could decide to decriminalize drugs in their own, local context. Doing so is not just a symbolic gesture; significant local drug-consumer markets have now been established in Brazil and Mexico, for example. Slowly but surely, maybe we'll start to see a new strategy—maybe even further north.

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