Washington Rethinks the War on Drugs


December 19, 2009 – WASHINGTON – As the war on drugs moves closer to home and a new administration presents new ideas, policymakers in Washington are taking notice of 30 years’ worth of ineffectual drug policy and beginning to think about different ways of addressing the northward flow of narcotics.

The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved a bill recently that would create an independent commission to re-evaluate and make recommendations on domestic and international drug policies. This is being seen as an acknowledgement that current strategies meant to control illicit drugs are not working – and have not worked for a while.

“The premise of the commission is not, of course, that we’re doing great but that our policies aren’t working and we need a rethink,” says John Walsh, who works on drug policy at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). He says actions like this “speak to the level of frustration” over the impotence of past drug policies.

WOLA released its own recommendations on new directions these policies could take. Their report says past policies that have focused on eradication of coca and opium crops are counter-productive unless they are preceded by rural development. “Proper sequencing is crucial: development must come first,” it reads, or else, without alternative livelihoods firmly in place, people will have no choice but to return to growing crops for illicit markets.

Just as development is a precondition for preventing illegal crops, it says, effective governance and a reduction in violence are preconditions for development. But development assistance should not be contingent on prior elimination of illegal crops – that would merely deny aid to the communities that need it most.

Even with recent actions in Washington, the U.S. is likely still far from a policy like this.

The House bill does, however, establish a Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission which will have two million dollars to investigate and research independently of the political process.

“Billions upon billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have been spent over the years to combat the drug trade in Latin America and the Caribbean. In spite of our efforts, the positive results are few and far between,” said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, who introduced the legislation.

“You need to take it to the level of an independent commission to get it out of the crevices of politics,” says Walsh.

Walsh says there has been a shift in Washington’s public attitude toward status quo drug policies, especially among Democrats.

One possible factor in this shift is the way in which the war on drugs has moved closer to home for the U.S.

The State Department has estimated that in 1990 just over half the cocaine in the U.S. came from Mexico, but by 2007 that figure had risen to over 90 percent. This has been one side effect of President George W. Bush’s expansion of the Plan Colombia military and fumigation
operations: to displace it from Colombia to elsewhere in the Americas, or even beyond.

Drug violence in Mexico, which has surged since Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderón began to cooperate in combating trafficking, is reported to have claimed the lives of over 16,000 people in the past three years; more than 7,000 so far in 2009 alone.

In April, Caribbean leaders asked the U.S. to expand the Mérida Initiative, by which U.S. support is given to counter-trafficking efforts in Mexico and Central America, to include their countries since the escalation of efforts in Mexico could cause traffickers to move their operations elsewhere.

“We have succeeded in moving things around, but we haven’t really stemmed the traffic and it may be worse now,” says Walsh, explaining that trafficking is spreading to places with weaker institutions, like West Africa.

“The only concrete outcome of [current] strategy is to shift drug cartels from one region to another,” said former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso Thursday. Cardoso joined former presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia earlier this year in signing a declaration calling for greater emphasis on reducing drug consumption and a reconsideration of the criminalization of marijuana.

Washington seems to finally be open to suggestions. The first sign came when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly acknowledged the role of the U.S. in the fueling the violence in Mexico and elsewhere.

“We know very well that the drug traffickers are motivated by the demand for illegal drugs in the United States and that they are armed by the transport of weapons from the United States,” she said in a March visit to the U.S.’s southern neighbor.

Now Congress appears somewhat ready to try a new tack. Assuming it is approved by the Senate – consensus is mixed on the likelihood of this, but it did gain bipartisan support in the House – one of the aspects the drug policy commission will look at is domestic treatment programs, which have been neglected in the past relative to enforcement and action targeting supply.

Congress is also in the process of passing spending bills this week and next. Included amongst the various items in these “omnibus” bills are measures that would allow federal funding for syringe exchange programs and legalization of medical marijuana in Washington, DC – which voters had approved in 1998 before a Congressman withheld its funding.

The bill, however, includes further funding for the Mérida Initiative and other aspects of the war on drugs, including, controversially, money for Honduras, which remains under the rule of a government that came to power in a June coup.

These drug policies may change soon, though, following the commission’s eventual report and the Obama administration’s unveiling of its new National Drug Control Strategy, expected in the first few months of 2010. This strategy is expected to have more of a focus on demand reduction than its predecessors.

In some ways, like the plan to use Colombian bases to launch attacks against narcotics operations there, President Barack Obama has continued the supply-and military-focused policies of Bush, says Walsh, but domestically his priorities seem to be different.

“New leadership is emerging that is not afraid ask questions and look for answers,” he said, citing Virginia Senator Jim Webb, who he says does not have to worry about his “tough” credentials and who wants a committee to look at criminal justice reform, including as it regards drug policy.

Criticism of the war that was launched by President Richard Nixon and has continued over three decades appears to have become mainstream and it is nearly common knowledge that its approach has failed.

Despite the billions spent on efforts like Plan Colombia, retail cocaine prices have gradually declined since the early 1990s after sharply dropping in the previous decade, according to graphs based on numbers from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) that WOLA presented to a Congressional briefing Tuesday. The purity, which should bring higher prices at higher levels, has remained about the same since increasing sharply as prices declined in the 1980s. This is the opposite of what policies aimed at eradication of supply intended or expected.

Obama’s drug chief said in May that the new administration would move away from terms like “war on drugs.” Its approach would be to deal with the problem as a matter of public health rather than criminal justice, ONDCP director Gil Kerlikowske told The Wall Street Journal. He also said federal agents would no longer raid medical marijuana dispensaries in states that had legalized it.

The U.S. criminal justice system has long been criticized by some for coming down too hard on minor drug-related offenses and thus overwhelming the country’s prison systems.

There have also been issues like the discrepancy between the sentencing guidelines for powder cocaine and crack cocaine – five grams of the latter, which is predominantly used by African-Americans, carries the same penalty as 500 of the former. A Senate bill under consideration would make the penalty five years for 500 grams of either; a House version would simply eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for the offenses.

“I think we’re going to see an evolution in terms of talking more about demand and containing harms rather than just focusing on prevention of use,” says Walsh. BY MATTHEW BERGER. Source.


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