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The (Other) Longest War

By Robert Valencia

This summer marks 40 years since President Richard Nixon declared a “war” against drugs, which he identified as “America’s number one enemy.” In 1971, the Nixon administration earmarked $155 million for controlling the use and smuggling of illegal drugs. Today, that figure is more than $15 billion a year, 17 times higher than and it was four decades ago, adjusting for inflation.

But to evaluate the true cost of the War on Drugs, the hundreds of thousands of fatalities from drug-related violence and drug overdoses in the last four decades have to be taken into consideration. The high casualty rate from drug-related violence and the persistence of widespread drug abuse has lead many to ask the question: Is the “War on Drugs” still worth fighting?

Chilean writer Raúl Rivera Andueza, whose latest book hails advancements in the war against drugs in Latin America, said in a recent interview that drug trafficking is more of a problem in the developed world than in Latin America, since citizens of developed countries are the primary consumers of a product their governments have declared illegal. His theory is based on the fact that neither the Cali nor the Ciudad Juarez cartels make as much money as the ones who sell drugs as middlemen on the streets of America.

Yet Latin American countries have paid a heavy price in the “War on Drugs,” which has long been at the root of violence and political instability that still plagues the region. During the 1980s and 1990s, Colombia was the prime example of a Latin American country whose society and politics were transformed—and pushed to the brink of collapse—by drug trade. In the past decade, Mexico has arguably replaced Colombia in that role. Since President Felipe Calderón declared war against the Juárez cartels, as well as criminal gangs like the Zetas and La Familia Michoacana, the country has experienced an unprecedented surge in violence. This has been exacerbated by the influx of guns from the United States, and the violence has also spilled over to Central America.

In my previous articles on this theme, many of the readers’ comments called for the legalization of drugs in the United States. And it seems that the Global Commission on Drug Policy is listening to such arguments. Led by former presidents Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviriaof Colombia,and Ernesto Zedilloof Mexico, the Commission argues that the War on Drugs has failed, pointing to the increasing consumption of opiates and cocaine worldwide—27 and 34 percent, respectively, between 1998 and 2008. A report issued by the Commission in June 2011 proposes the decriminalization of drugs, more investments in treatments for drug users, and an end to the criminalization and stigmatization of addiction. These measures, the report claims, would reduce prison overcrowding and diminish the devastating power of drug-trafficking cartels. These findings back up a study published by the RAND Corporation in 1997,which found that employing drug-user treatment to diminish consumption is seven times more cost-effective than law enforcement efforts alone.

Drug legalization would have a few undeniable benefits. First, the United States government would save millions of dollars on law enforcement expenditures. Legalizing drugs would also allow the government to focus more on serious crimes instead of wasting time and money on incarcerating non-violent offenders. More funds would become available for rehabilitation programs in drug-ridden communities. Lastly, legalization would likely lead to a significant reduction in drug-related violence by reducing the profit motive that drives criminal gangs.

Of course, legalization has the potential to undermine the impact of previous and current health campaigns against drug consumption, while making it seem as though laws are obsolete—in other words, that the U.S. has no obligation to protect its citizens from harmful products.

What’s more, for any process of legalization to be effective, it would require a reduction of drug supply from Latin America into the United States and a simultaneous reduction in the seemingly ceaseless flow of American firearms into Mexico. Such developments would require significant policy actions on the part of Latin American countries—and, perhaps most importantly, the restoration of Latin Americans’ trust in their own governments, which has steadily eroded in the wake of corruption and ineffective rule of law.

Because legalization would not succeed without these other changes, many of which are unlikely to occur in the short term, it’s difficult to endorse legalization as the best alternative, despite being an attractive option in several ways.

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Robert Valencia is a research fellow of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

[Photo courtesy of flickr user Jesus Villaseca Perez]

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