Rethinking the Drug War in the Americas

Photo: morrbyte, Shutterstock

Since Richard Nixon started the war on drugs 40 years ago, both the demand for narcotics and the violence surrounding the drug trade have risen dramatically, and the United States alone has spent more than $1 trillion losing the fight. After decades of failed strategy, Latin American heads of state are now boldly pressuring the United States for a change of policy across the Americas.

Over the past few years, a movement in favor of decriminalization, legal regulation and various alternatives to the war on drugs has been gaining steam from Mexico all the way down to Argentina, but it has really caught fire in the last couple of months. This is a decidedly good thing.

On March 24 and 25, President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala pushed the conversation at the Central American Security Summit in Antigua, Guatemala, saying that the crusade is costing Central American countries hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives every year. President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica echoed this sentiment, asking, "How much have we paid here in Central America in deaths, kidnapping and extortion?"

At the summit of the Organisation of American States (OAS) held in Cartagena, Colombia, on April 14 and 15, voices questioning the drug war multiplied. Some of those voices are coming from rightist leaders with personal experience in this war. President Molina was a general in the Guatemalan army and began coordinating with U.S. and Latin American agencies 20 years ago in fighting drug trafficking. He has called the war on drugs an abject failure. President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia—a former defense minister responsible for battling leftist rebels and drug traffickers, and arguably Washington's closest regional ally in the region—has also called for a new approach that would "take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking."

Mexican President Felipe Calderón has also become frustrated with the U.S.-led approach and is now urging Washington to look at alternatives. Since Calderon launched a frontal assault on cartels at the end of 2006, about 50,000 people have been killed. Corruption is rampant among security forces, fuelled by narco-dollars. The situation in Guatemala and Honduras is even worse in terms of casualties. There isn't a country in the region that isn't affected.

A big part of the problem is, reduction in supply of one drug gives rise to demand of another. A crackdown on production in one territory boosts prices in another. The war on drugs is an effort to suffocate what Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, calls a "dynamic global commodities market," one that the United Nations estimates is worth $332 billion globally. Nadelmann says, "Marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin—they are global commodities markets much in the same way that alcohol, tobacco, sugar or coffee are. So long as there is a demand, especially a significant demand in a country like the United States, there will be a supply."

And there will always be demand. In presenting his case in The Guardian, President Molina writes, "The prohibition paradigm that inspires mainstream global drug policy today is based on a false premise: that the global drug markets can be eradicated. We would not believe such a statement if it were applied to alcoholism or tobacco addiction, but somehow we assume it's right in the case of drugs."

So the argument goes, by decriminalizing and regulating drugs, narcotics prices would drop, and cartels would not be able to turn blood into so much gold. Of course, problems would arise. In some areas near the Andes, large portions of the population are tied economically to the coca industry, and replacing one industry with another could not be done overnight. Also, drug traffickers could certainly turn their attention to other deadly revenue streams, such as human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion or contract killing.

The important thing is that governments begin a dialogue about approaching this problem some other way. At the OAS summit, U.S. President Barack Obama heard this argument clearly. Although he is not about to change policy right now, especially during an election year, Obama indicated that he at least agrees that this is a discussion worth having. Vice President Joe Biden, on a recent trip to Central America, also legitimized the discussion. This is the first time a U.S. president or vice president has ever said this is worth talking about, which is of no small significance.

Latin American governments are showing that they are willing to stand up to the United States like never before. There is a growing sense of independence in the region that is starting to manifest itself not only on this issue, but on others as well. More than 30 governments banded together this year in pressuring Washington to include Cuba in the next OAS summit, saying that unless the United States lifts its veto on this issue, there may not be a summit next year. And in a recent meeting in Washington, President Calderón demanded that the United States stem the unending stream of assault weapons that pours into Mexico from the north.

The war on drugs has been subject to mission creep for the last 20 years, with the DEA practically doubling in size over that time, now with 85 foreign offices in 65 countries. The bloodshed and lawlessness that has come as a result is undeniable, with Latin American countries bearing the brunt of it. Product demand and policy has originated largely in the United States, and it will be up to the United States to initiate a change in course. But Washington is not going to change anything unless Latin American states force its hand. They have started the push. Let's hope that push continues.

Joshua Pringle is a master's student of international relations at New York University as well as the senior editor of

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Joshua Pringle.