Redirecting the Drug War Debate

Latin America has known for a long time that waging war on drugs is futile. Is the rest of the world finally ready for a refocused drug policy debate?
By: /
May 28, 2013

The Canadian Prime Minister visited Colombia and Peru this week, two of the most productive economies in Latin America. Harper has made clear that Canada sees Latin America, and the Pacific Rim countries in particular, as gateways to freer trade. However, Colombia and Peru are also two of the largest producers and exporters of cocaine on the planet, a point the Canadian Prime Minister delicately avoided. Harper would do well to acknowledge Latin Americans very real grievances on the drug policy front, and Canada’s shared responsibility in addressing the problem.

Leaders from Mexico, Central America and countries like Bolivia and Uruguay are increasingly convinced that the war on drugs is failing. And it seems that at least one country in North America also tacitly agrees.  President Obama’s visit this month to Mexico and Central America presaged a remarkable shift in narrative from security to economic priorities. And an unprecedented report by the Organization of American States also calls attention to the shortcomings of counter-narcotics efforts across the western hemisphere. 

Latin Americans have long been unsatisfied with what they see as the Yankee’s war. Signs that their mood had soured became clear during the 2012 Summit of the Americas when presidents from Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Colombia called for an end to prohibition. To their surprise, Obama showed openness to new approaches and Harper conceded that "the current approach is not working" and that alternatives were needed. 

Today, many political leaders across Latin America are keen to refocus attention on growth, employment, and tourism. They recognize that bad news sends out even worse signals to financial markets and would-be tourists. In the coming months we can expect more energetic discussion on access to energy, infrastructure, jobs, immigration, and trade. Closer to home, there is also increasing criticism of Canada’s drug warrior mentality and calls for repealing the war on drugs all together. 

It is hardly surprising that Latin Americans are intent on changing the debate. They have borne the brunt of the disastrous fall-out from the drug war and their populations are growing impatient. For example, in a bid to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Mexico’s new President Peña Nieto is demanding that all U.S. assistance is channeled through a "single door" rather than through hundreds of federal and state-level agencies. President Obama’s comments in Central America also suggest a retreat from his "tough on crime approach" to one that favours softer socio-economic priorities.

Although President Obama has hinted at rolling back the campaign against drugs, his country still privileges military solutions over developmental ones. The United States has spent more than $14 billion on military equipment and drug eradication efforts in Colombia, Mexico, and Central America over the past decade and a half. It may have spent more than a trillion dollars since the 1960s. Now the United States is publicly calling for a more "balanced" approach since, as one official explained: "there are only so many black hawks [helicopters] we can sell them."

To be sure, the refocusing of attention on the economic drivers of organized crime, including big time drug traffickers and organized gangs, is a welcome development. After years of peddling repression, there may now be space to discuss the underlying factors that give rise to the supply and demand for drugs in the first place. It is widely known that poverty, inequality, and weak public institutions give rise to violent criminal entrepreneurs. The novel emphasis of the presidents of Mexico and Central America on education and jobs for vulnerable youth is undoubtedly good news.

But a simplistic focus on economic development will not diminish the region’s drug and gang problems. Instead, it risks depoliticizing the debate, and concealing the ways in which corrupt elites keep the drug business alive. What is really needed is a comprehensive strategy that elevates violence prevention as the goal of drug policy. This means investing not just in police and judicial institutions as Canada is currently doing, but also increasing spending on education and job-placement for at-risk youth, supporting single mothers, and promoting urban renewal in hot spots.

Canada and the United States should also reconsider the metrics by which they measure success in dealing with illicit drug production, trafficking, and consumption. This means moving beyond the amount of drug crops eradicated, suspects put in jail, or the price of cocaine in Toronto or New York. Good policy should be measured in terms of its harm reduction effects, including fewer murders, overdoses, and new cases of needle-related disease, and decreased prison populations. Policies based on evidence rather than ideology are needed now more than ever. 

Ilona Szabo de Carvalho, Director of the Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro, and Juan Garzon Vegara, a researcher at Georgetown University, also contributed to this piece.  A Spanish version of the article is available here. A new related study by the authors is available here