May 16, 2021 18:00

U.S. Needs ‘Smarter’ Drug Strategy in Latin America: Commission

Offering a blueprint on drug policy for the incoming Joe Biden Administration, a bipartisan commission has called on Washington to develop “smarter” policies to reduce both the supply of illicit narcotics in the Western Hemisphere—and the demand for them.

“An increasingly complex threat requires a more agile, adaptive long-term strategy,” the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission said in a report issued this month.

“We need smarter international policies within an interagency effort led by the State Department.”

Conceding that American counter-narcotics policies have at times caused “considerable harm” in many countries, the Commission argued that the number of lives lost to illegal drugs in the U.S. continued to make U.S. action essential.

Nearly 500,000 Americans have died from drug overdoses in the past ten years.

Some critics have called on the U.S. to abandon its support for a militarized approach overseas that mirrors the War on Drugs at home—now discredited by domestic critics. And Latin American leaders have begun moving towards drug legalization, and called on the U.S. to do the same.

Last week, notably, the House of Representatives voted to decriminalize marijuana strategy—although few people expect the measure to pass the Senate.

The commissioners made clear it was time to move beyond “War on Drugs” rhetoric.

“An open and honest debate should first acknowledge that ‘war on drugs’ is the wrong metaphor,” the report said.

“Drug prohibition is not a conflict where one side wins and the other loses, but a complex, ongoing effort to enforce laws designed (at least in theory) to protect public health.”

The Commission argued that the U.S. needs to back continued efforts to eliminate transnational drug cartels—even though it admitted that targeting drug kingpins has had the unintended effect of increasing violence both between and within gangs.

It said the task was now even more critical “amid the economic havoc wreaked by COVID-19.”

“The pandemic has exacerbated conditions that are worsening our ongoing opioid crisis, such as lack of adequate treatment, economic distress, and social isolation,” the report said.

“It is also likely to further weaken security and justice institutions in the Latin American countries that produce drugs or lie along drug transit routes.”

The Commission is a bipartisan, congressionally mandated entity charged with evaluating U.S. counter-narcotics programs in the Americas and making recommendations to reduce the flow of illicit drugs as well as the deaths associated with those drugs.

Members of the Commission met with US officials, foreign diplomats and experts in drug control and foreign assistance over the past year and a half. The commissioners also visited Colombia, Mexico and Central America to explore the impact of U.S. drug policy on the ground.

Its work was largely concluded before the November election.

In its 117-page report, the Commission touted some of the successes of U.S. drug policy in the region – namely, capacity building and advancing criminal justice reforms in Mexico, strengthening effective governance in the Northern Triangle, and gathering data that can be used to discover financial networks that commit organized crime.

Notwithstanding those successes, the report said in no uncertain terms, “the illicit drug industry has evolved far more rapidly than our efforts to contain it.”

Meanwhile, anti-money laundering initiatives have led traffickers to use the black market, devise complex trade-based schemes, and conduct digital transactions – strategies which make drug trafficking more difficult to detect.

With these successes and shortcomings in mind, the Commission offered five recommendations it believes will “provide a roadmap for cost-effective, evidence-based drug control policies.”

First, the report recommends that the State Department develop and lead an interagency effort to counter transnational criminal organizations and lower the supply of illegal drugs from other countries.

Specifically, the State Department should – in collaboration with U.S. Agency for International Agency, federal law enforcement agencies, and the Department of Defense – devise five-year international drug control strategies.

To do so, the State Department requires flexible funding and the authority to dispense emergency funds to assist foreign governments, according to the report.

Second, the drug certification and designation process should be replaced with more effective mechanisms to evaluate the efforts of other governments and sanction those who stand idly by.

For example, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs should review country efforts to reduce drug trafficking and determine whether existing U.S. sanctions are effective.

Third, U.S. ambassadors should devise multi-year agreements with foreign governments that outline shared goals to fight organized crime, strengthen criminal justice institutions, and reduce corruption.

The report’s fourth and fifth recommendations are to have the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy provide data-driven assessments of domestic and foreign counter-narcotics efforts and to ensure that the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network has ample resources to investigate financial crimes, respectively.

The Commission believes that these recommendations lay the foundation for a “cost-effective, interagency strategy with carefully targeted policies to curb the flow of dangerous drugs into the United States while addressing institutional weaknesses in drug producing and transit countries.”

Such a strategy – that is, one “designed to address underlying causes and conditions, carefully measure progress, and eliminate or mitigate adverse consequences” – will also help save lives, the Commission said.

The commissioners agreed that curbing the illicit trade in narcotics was unlikely to be successful without addressing the huge market for addictive drugs in North America.

“Two truisms about counter-narcotics policy bear repeating: we cannot control the supply of dangerous drugs without also reducing demand and we cannot curb demand without also limiting supply,” the report said.

“We may never end illegal drug trafficking, just as we cannot eliminate substance abuse. But we can better manage these deadly problems with a comprehensive strategy designed to address underlying causes and conditions, carefully measure progress, and eliminate or mitigate adverse consequences.”

The Commission was chaired by Shannon O’Neil, vice president, deputy director of studies, and senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Other members include Clifford Sobel, vice chair, currently a managing partner at the Valor Capital Group and previously the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil from 2006 to 2009; and Sam Farr, a former Democratic Congressman who represented California’s 17th and 20th districts from 1993 to 2017.

Also: Gen. Douglas Fraser (ret.), former head US of Southern Command (SOUTHCOM); Pete Gallego, former Democratic Representative of Texas’23rd District, and Chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus; Juan González, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs; Dan Restrepo, who served as special assistant to former President Barack Obama on Latin American affairs; and Matt Salmon, a former Republican congressman from Arizona who was chair of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere and Asia and the Pacific.

The full report of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission can be accessed here.

Editor’s Note: For additional information on drug-related crime and policy, please see The Crime Report’s resource page on “Drugs.”

See also: “Biden Plans Public-Health Approach to Addiction Crisis,” by Crime and Justice News, The Crime Report, November 30, 2020

This summary was prepared by TCR News Intern Michael Gelb. Michael welcomes comments from readers.

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