As far back as 2009, drug "czar" Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office on National Drugs Control Policy, told the Wall Street Journal that the terminology "war on drugs" was no longer appropriate. He announced that the Obama administration's drug strategy would focus on rehabilitation, not criminalization. The Journal at the time described this as a "more moderate, but more controversial" policy.

The strategy of viewing drugs as a health problem rather than a criminal one is gaining momentum in the United States and around the world. But is the "war" on drugs really ending?  

Richard Nixon declared war on drugs in 1971, making them public enemy number one. The term now refers to the enforcement strategy used by the United States and other countries. In the U.S., the war is fought on both domestic and foreign fronts.

On the domestic side, President Reagan gave the war on drugs its lasting social legacy by implementing mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offences, causing an unprecedented rise of convictions for young people and racial and social disparities in the prison population.  

On the foreign front, the war includes military and financial aid to countries in Latin America and Asia to stop the cultivation and trafficking of drugs. An estimated $1 trillion has been spent in the US over 40 years, with little change in consumption and production. Many are starting to reevaluate the U.S’s foreign actions as well as the domestic treatment of offenders.


The Shifting Mood in Latin America

Latin American countries welcomed help from the United States in combating illegal drugs, but there has been so little progress that states experiencing the worst drug-related violence hope to promote a global discussion on decriminalization. Many Latin American leaders think prohibition-based policies focus too much on enforcing the supply side without addressing demand. They blame the United States for the rise of the transnational cartels that have grown wealthy and powerful by smuggling drugs across the border.

Of course, the endemic drug problem in the region is not purely America's doing—weak institutions, corruption, and poverty in supply countries play their part, but many U.S. actions have had unintended consequences. In Colombia, crop spraying and fumigation has destroyed legal crops and biodiversity and driven local farmers into urban slums. The disruption of Colombian drug routes has caused the problem to spread into Central America. The Drug Enforcement Administration's destruction of crops in Mexico in the 1970s caused disparate groups to band together in a hydra-like Federacíon cartel.

Documents released by Wikileaks in 2010 revealed that diplomats are aware of the lack of progress in the region, and are worried about coca-nationalism in Bolivia, increased cocaine consumption in Peru, and a possible “spillover effect” into Argentina, where enforcement is not as developed. But this high-level concern has not yet translated into a change in U.S. policy.

At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia in April 2012, American states formally discussed the war on drugs. A coalition of Latin American leaders called for decriminalization of all narcotics and some kind of regulated market, comparable to firearms.  These ideas came not from liberal former presidents but from hard-line drug warriors like President Perez Molina of Guatemala and President Santos of Colombia.

They argue that evidence shows that as long as there is demand, somebody will supply it. Allowing addicts to get government-regulated pharmaceutical narcotics would reduce demand for illegal drugs. Former president Cardoso of Brazil argues that a complete ban is strongly against the public interest, keeping drug lords in business and placing addicts and others in a position of severe vulnerability.


A Moral Argument?

Milton Friedman wrote over 20 years ago that “illegality creates obscene profit” for drug dealers. Prohibition also increases violence, because it gives dealers greater incentive to intimidate witnesses and officials. Cartels fight not only the security forces but each other for territory and access to transit routes.  

A moral argument against prohibition was discussed on the Practical Ethics blog at Oxford University, citing John Stuart Mill’s rule that the only legitimate reason to prohibit something was if it harm others. “The right to pursue pleasure gives us reason to legalize drugs, while addiction and self-harm fail to give us good reason to prohibit them,” write Julian Savulescu and Bennett Foddy. Since most of the harm comes from the illegal drug trade, not from self-harm and addiction, prohibition is not the moral answer.

Famed psychological and psychedelic researcher Timothy Leary pointed out the civil (or in this case, cognitive) liberty angle when he declared that individuals should have the right to altered states: “Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow man from changing his or her own consciousness.”

A more pragmatic argument is made on the social impact of drug enforcement, which skews unfairly toward poor and underprivileged communities. If addicts were treated by the health system instead of going to prison, it could break the cycle of crime and poverty that hampers many neighborhoods. On the economic side, a study by Harvard Economist Jeffrey Miron concluded that drug regulation could inject more than $70 billion into the U.S. economy—both from tax revenues and from saving money on enforcement.

Still, it is far from clear whether decriminalization would be the answer. At a Carnegie Council event, Ed Vulliamy, author of AMEXICA: War Along the Borderline, speculated that if narcotics were regulated, cartels might find anther way of providing cheaper but more dangerous drugs.

There is a reality that the decriminalization debate overlooks, writes Viridaes Rios in the New York Times.  In the affected countries, “[a] significant number of young, uneducated and armed people would suddenly become unemployed,” which could lead to a huge increase in crime and instability, at least in the short term.

President Obama made it clear at the Summit of the Americas that he was not in favor of decriminalization or legalization, but that he was interested in a “discussion” of all options. The summit participants agreed to commission a study of decriminalization, to be released in March 2014.


Global Shift

There is also international shift away from prohibition-based strategies.  The Global Commission on Drug Policy noted in its 2011 report that current methods of enforcement have "clearly failed to effectively curtail supply and consumption." Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001, and a subsequent Cato Institute study found it hugely successful, noting that Portugal has the lowest drug addiction rate in Europe.

Recently in the United Kingdom, Conservative politician and Secretary of State for Justice Ken Clarke said the war was being lost. In addition to prominent members of the House of Lords, proponents of reform in Britain include the former Director of Public Prosecutions, the former head of the BBC, and former members of both MI5 and MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Services.

In the United States, high-profile proponents of decriminalization include former Secretary of State George Schultz and Chairman of the Economic Recovery Board Paul Volcker, in addition to more liberal voices like Noam Chomsky. According to the American NGO Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, 67 percent of U.S. police chiefs think the war on drugs is a failure.


Rethinking the Strategy?

President Obama is clearly not oblivious to the growing consensus—but so far, change has been mostly on the domestic front. In May 2012, Kerlikowske announced a "paradigm shift" in national drugs policy for Obama’s second term. Addiction will be treated as a health issue, enabling past offenders to re-enter society. Many state and federal laws still prevent offenders from getting stable housing, student loans, and driver's licenses.

Some, however, have noted little change: "The rebalancing and the rethinking Obama mentioned before and after becoming president have been largely rhetorical," wrote Bernd Debusmann in an op-ed for Reuters. Debusmann points out that the 2013 budget proposal allocates 41.2 per cent for demand reduction and 58.2 for enforcement—about the same proportions as under presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton. Obama did repeal a federal ban on needle programs in an effort to prevent the spread of HIV, and he has laid out several key strategies that show a shift of emphasis on the domestic level.

America's foreign-fought drug war will probably remain in place for now. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Mexico in early 2012 to reiterate the U.S. opposition to decriminalization, though he did concede that discussion of decriminalization was "legitimate." After Mexico elected Enrique Pena Nieto last week, the United States sought reassurance that the current military strategy in Mexico against drug cartels would continue. Nieto announced he would shift the focus of drugs policy and create a 40,000-strong force to protect citizens, but said there would be no truce or pact with organized crime.  

Small Steps

Kevin Sabet, a former senior adviser to Kerlikowske, said recently that there are moderate measures on all fronts that have been effective when implemented together: collective prevention (community coalitions rather than individual programs), small penalties like days in jail instead of permanent records, intervention and counseling, and targeted enforcement. "It remains to be seen whether we will fully use these interventions to their full potential or instead throw up our hands and abandon all efforts as if nothing can ever work," wrote Sabet in U.S. News and World Report on Monday. "Let's hope it is the former."

The shift has been minimal so far, but as Debusmann concedes, it is telling that calls for change now come from sitting (rather than former) presidents. Reform advocates take this as a sign that changes in the drug war, and maybe an end to it altogether, are in sight.

PHOTO CREDIT: Marion Ross (CC). Caribbean Sea (Aug. 5, 2003): A Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) Team assigned to destroyer USS Stump (DD 978) and her embarked U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment 107 (USCG LEDET 107), prepare to board a vessel suspected of smuggling drugs during a counter drug operation conducted south of Jamaica.]

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