Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos joined his counterparts from Mexico and Guatemala this week in issuing a joint statement to United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki Moon calling for a global debate on the efficacy of the decades-old, U.S.-led “war on drugs” and calling on the U.N. to sponsor an international conference to examine the possibility of reforms.
This effort continues a growing regional concern — manifested most recently at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in April 2012 — about the domestic costs that countries have borne fighting the drug scourge to feed the recreational habits of consumers in wealthier societies.
Colombia’s and others’ concerns and frustrations are completely understandable. Colombia, in particular, has paid an enormous cost in both blood and treasure over the past two decades against the criminal organizations that profit from the cultivation and trafficking of illicit narcotics.
Regional leaders have been careful in their language, but clearly they are putting on the table the controversial issue of whether countries should take steps to decriminalize or legalize the use of certain illegal drugs in an attempt to reduce the vast amount of money involved in the drug trade — and hence the lure of producing or trafficking in them.
The problem is, as much as one would hope, there is no really no clear indication that less restrictionist polices on the consumption of illegal drugs would lessen drug-related violence or otherwise improve their respective domestic situations in any way.
For example, even if drug-producing or transit countries were to decriminalize or otherwise legalize consumption of certain narcotics at home, there is zero chance any such reforms will be replicated anytime soon in the major consumer countries such as the United States and in the European Union. That is just stating the political reality.
Moreover, less restrictionist policies in the former without question will lead to a spike in consumption among local populations, including all the attendant social ills and losses in economic production. It would also place entirely new obligations and responsibilities on governments already hard-pressed to cope with peoples’ needs, such as requiring new bureaucracies to regulate and enforce the new policies, as well as implementing costly new programs for addiction treatment and prevention campaigns.
Nor is it clear exactly just what impact decriminalization or legalization of certain drugs will have on lessening violence. That’s because drug trafficking is only a symptom of bigger problem. The core issue is one of criminality — and the need to develop effective institutions to ensure public security and eliminate impunity. The same gangs and organized crime organizations that traffic in drugs are also heavily involved in extortion, kidnapping, money laundering, smuggling, counterfeit goods, and other criminal acts. Although extremely lucrative, drugs are only one part of the problem.
The solution therefore lies not in less restrictive domestic drug policies but for countries to continue the admittedly challenging reforms to develop more effective law enforcement capabilities, open and transparent court systems, and better prisons, among other institutions for the public good.
Critics of supply-side control strategies that have long dominated counter-narcotics efforts rightly point out, what’s the point? Once you are successful in pushing cultivation or trafficking routes in one country they merely reappear in another (the so-called “balloon effect”).
That may be true, but it also doesn’t take into account that drug production and trafficking are pushed out of countries when those countries develop more effective policies and institutions to do so. As long as those criminal elements can find new territories to exploit, they are able to regroup. However, they are running out of such opportunities. Once Central American countries begin to develop an effective response, it is unlikely that drug syndicates will be easily able to return to environments they have left in the first place.
That is, as long as countries stay the course. In Bolivia, for example, backsliding on counter-narcotics efforts by the government of Evo Morales is indeed providing an attractive environment for drug traffickers to once again set up shop.
The harsh truth is that there are no easy solutions to eliminating drug-related crime, violence, and corruption. Regional governments owe it their peoples to continue tackling the tough reforms that are essential for their own future political stability, democratic consolidation, the general welfare, and national security.
Author Jose R. Cardenas served in the State Department, the National Security Council, and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration. He is a director with the consulting firm Vision Americas.