When Will the US Admit the War on Drugs Has Failed?

The US has been scaling back involvement in its “backyard,” Latin America, for quite some time. After focusing heavily on the Middle East in the early 2000s, Asia and Africa appear to be the regions America’s foreign policy establishment wants to prioritize next.

Further evidence of this trend came yesterday, when it was reported that US Secretary of State John Kerry publicly defended planned cuts to anti-narcotics assistance for Colombia and Mexico. “In Mexico, our proposal reflects money that is already in progress, and does not translate into a reduction in any priority or effort,” said Kerry. “And so it is with Colombia, which has improved their ability to do the things we worked on with Plan Colombia. So we believe there is adequate funding, and we already have the necessary resources underway to do the things we need.”

To be quite honest, most of the programs this aid funded have been a failure. Mexico remains violence-ridden, corrupt and a major supplier of illegal drugs to the US. Colombia too is still a violent and scandal-plagued drug-producing country. So, it’s a bit nonsensical to cite progress as a reason to draw down funding.

In reality, the utter failure of these programs may be why the US is slowly backpedaling on the war on drugs. Kerry’s defense of the cuts came on the same day that the head of the US Southern Command, Gen. John Kelly, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that despite the billions of dollars worth of surveillance planes, radar, human intelligence capabilities and other assets that allegedly give him “very good clarity” on drug trafficking operations in Colombia, much of the time, he said, “I simply sit and watch it go by.”

Blaming a supposed lack of resources for the fact that he is only able to interdict about 20% of the drugs leaving Colombia destined for the US, Kelly claimed he could do more if he had more ships and aircraft. This argument makes some superficial sense, but the historical evidence for his assertion is less robust. After the introduction of Plan Colombia in the early 2000s, coca cultivation was indeed reduced in that country, but it simply shifted into Bolivia and Peru.

In reality, there is virtually nothing that will stop the production and distribution of drugs. Traffickers have used every conceivable means of transport from aircraft to submarines to children to underground tunnels equipped with electric rail systems. Prohibition and interdiction efforts likely make the drug trade more profitable for traffickers because they can charge a “risk premium” to middle-men and end-users.

Drug use in the US has declined significantly since Richard Nixon announced the “war on drugs” in 1971, but drug-trafficking organizations are as powerful and globalized as ever. More than 80% of Americans believe the US is losing the drug war. How long can this zombie policy survive?

Probably not much longer. 20 US states (plus the District of Colombia) have medical marijuana laws on the books and two states have legalized recreational use of the drug. Support for legalization has skyrocketed, passing 50% for the first time ever. But while the American people acknowledge that the drug war is a failure, the political establishment refuses to own up to its decades-long pursuit of a wrongheaded policy even as it attempts to discretely walk it back.

Last May, the US shut down its anti-drug office in Bolivia, signaling its intention to scale back its efforts in the Andean region. Back in December, after two American coca eradication planes were shot down within just a few months, the US suspended anti-coca operations in that country.

Kerry’s claims the draw-down “does not translate into a reduction in any priority or effort” and that “we already have the necessary resources underway to do the things we need” come off as disingenuous. If the drug war was working and its goals were worth pursuing, shouldn’t we fund it more?

As I (and many others) have argued before, we should legalize drugs and treat them as an issue of public health so we can focus law enforcement resources on actual crimes. It’s not enough to quietly retreat from a lost war. The US should acknowledge its policies were wrong and lead the way along a new path.

As anyone in a twelve-step program will tell you, the first step in recovery is to admit you have a problem.

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