A couple of weeks ago a friend and colleague sent me the link to this article by Johann Hari, Johann Hari: Accept the facts – and end this futile 'war on drugs', published in The Independent on 11 November 2009. It makes what to me is a compelling case for abandonment of the law enforcement approach to the drugs problem, and in so doing crystallised ideas that have been running around in my head for a long time.
Hari acknowledges that the proponents of the "war on drugs" are well-intentioned people who believe they are saving people from the nightmare of drug addiction and making the world safer. In arguing that their approach has failed he makes three main points:
- The drug war hands one of our biggest industries to armed criminal gangs, who unleash terrible violence across the country.
- Under prohibition, drug use becomes more hardcore.
- The drug war doesn't reduce drug use – but the alternatives can.
After outlining the benefits Portugal has experienced since it decriminalised the possession of all drugs on 1 July 2001, he continues:
So the drug war doesn't achieve its goal of reducing addiction. All it does achieve is horrific gang violence – and in some cases the cartels gut whole countries like Mexico and Afghanistan. It does unwittingly press people into using harder and more dangerous drugs. And it does waste tens of billions of dollars that could really reduce drug addiction, by spending it on treatment for addicts.
If you are still not convinced, consider the following paragraphs from Shanon O’Neil’s article The Real War in Mexico: How Democracy Can Defeat the Drug Cartels, published in Foreign Affairs, July/August 2009:
Brazen assassinations, kidnappings, and intimidation by drug lords conjure up images of Colombia in the early 1990s. Yet today it is Mexico that is engulfed by escalating violence. Over 10,000 drug-related killings have occurred since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006; in 2008 alone, there were over 6,000. Drug cartels have begun using guerrilla-style tactics: sending heavily armed battalions to attack police stations and assassinating police officers, government officials, and journalists. And they have also adopted innovative public relations strategies to recruit supporters and intimidate their enemies: displaying narcomantas -- banners hung by drug traffickers -- in public places and uploading videos of gruesome beheadings to YouTube.
From [their] increasingly sophisticated operational structure, Mexico's drug-trafficking organizations aggressively moved into the markets for heroin and methamphetamine in the United States, as well as the expanding European cocaine market. They extended their influence down the production chain into source countries such as Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. They established beachheads in Central American and Caribbean nations -- which in many cases have much weaker institutions and democracies than Mexico -- where they worked their way into the countries' economic, social, and political fabric, to devastating effect. They widened and deepened their U.S. distribution route. In the words of a recent Justice Department report, Mexican drug cartels now represent the "biggest organized crime threat to the United States," with operations in some 230 U.S. cities. They also diversified their domestic operations, with participants expanding into kidnapping, extortion, contraband, and human smuggling.
... Estimates of illicit profits range widely, but most believe some $15 billion to $25 billion heads across the U.S. border into the hands of Mexico's drug cartels each year. This money buys guns, people, and power. Compiled from thousands of retail drug sales in hundreds of U.S. cities, much of this money is wired, carried, or transported to the U.S.-Mexican border and then simply driven south in bulk. Mexican criminal organizations then launder the funds by using seemingly legal business fronts, such as used-car lots, import-export businesses, or foreign exchange houses. Laundered money not used to fund criminal operations or pay off officials in Mexico is often sent back to the United States and saved in U.S. bank accounts.
The number of drug-related deaths in 2008 far surpassed those for any other year in Mexican history. Disputes between rival criminal organizations have led to open gun battles on major city streets, often in broad daylight. Death threats have forced dozens of law enforcement and government officials to resign. Extortion rings in many cities prey on businesses, forcing owners to pay to protect their operations and employees. The fear of kidnapping plagues the upper, middle, and working classes alike.
O’Neil is not arguing for drug legalisation, far from it, although he does acknowledge that reduced demand for drugs in the United States would lower the drug profits that corrupt officials, buy guns and threaten Mexico’s democracy. On this ground he argues for drug-treatment and drug-education programs and other measures to rehabilitate addicts and lessen drugs’ allure for those not yet hooked.
But while drug treatment, drug education and drug education are admirable elements of social policy, they have no hope if they are swimming against the tide of a policy approach which has been a demonstrable failure since prohibition of alcohol was introduced in the United States in the 1920s. O’Neil unwittingly acknowledges this in his concluding paragraph, which begins:
The best the United States and Mexico can hope for in terms of security is for organized crime in Mexico to become a persistent but manageable law enforcement problem, similar to illegal businesses in the United States...
Is that really the best we can hope for? Let’s stand back a bit and get a grip on what is happening here. There is such a demand for illicit drugs in the United States that the economic rents created by their illegality sets up a cash flow into Mexico which is on the same scale as the $25 billion remitted annually to family and friends in Mexico by Mexican and Mexican American populations living in the United States. It is more than double the $11 billion earned by Mexico’s tourism industry.
This illicit cash flow rather dwarfs the $5 million that the United States gives to Mexico in official development assistance (that is not a typo, it is million, not billion), and indeed the less than $40 million in security assistance that the U.S. was providing to its neighbour until last year.
United States security funding for Colombia is on a larger scale at $600 million, but this is just attacking an upstream component of the Mexican problem.
In short, the criminalisation of drug use creates massive crime, violence and corruption in the United States, and makes important neighbouring states all but ungovernable. There has to be a better way than this, and that better way is to recognise that the need to take drugs is a psychological problem, and addiction to drugs is a medical problem.
Note: Shannon O’Neil is Douglas Dillon Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and Director of the CFR task force on U.S.-Latin American relations. His full article may be viewed here. To access it you will need to be a subscriber to Foreign Affairs or fill out a free one-time registration.