The U.S. Campaign Against International Narcotics Trafficking: A Cure Worse than the Disease

December 9, 1985 • Policy Analysis No. 63

President Reagan launched a new and decidedly militant phase in the U.S. campaign to halt global narcotics trafficking when he addressed the annual meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in September 1981. The president placed illicit‐​drug use and the narcotics trade in the context of a larger “crime epidemic” afflicting the United States. Mapping a comprehensive assault on the drug problem, he not only expressed a desire to strengthen domestic law‐​enforcement and educational efforts to stem consumer demand but also stressed the need to discourage international production and distribution. His proposed “narcotics enforcement strategy” included “a foreign policy that vigorously seeks to interdict and eradicate illicit drugs, wherever cultivated, processed, or transported.”[1] The president also announced the formation of the Special Council on Narcotics Control–consisting of the attorney general and the secretaries of state, defense, and the treasury, as well as other officials–to coordinate efforts to stop the flow of narcotics into the United States. The task of reducing illicit drug imports is monumental in scope. At present, approximately 15,000 tons of marijuana, 50–70 tons of cocaine, and 4 tons of heroin pour into the United States annually from abroad. More than a score of nations–principally Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Thailand, and Burma–are major suppliers. Foreign sources account for at least 80 percent, and perhaps as much as 90 percent, of the total U.S. supply of illicit drugs.[2]

In the four years since Reagan’s speech, various federal agencies, including the State Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the Central Intelligence Agency, have waged a vigorous war to eliminate narcotics production and distribution around the globe. The U.S. government has enticed or coerced numerous foreign governments into adopting programs to eradicate drug crops and to intercept narcotics shipments passing through their jurisdictions. U.S. officials urge growers to substitute other crops for the production of illicit varieties and offer them compensation during the transition. Congress and the administration channel millions of dollars into training and equipping foreign anti‐​narcotics law‐​enforcement agencies.

Despite much rhetorical bravado and a few highly publicized successes, the U.S. effort has been a bitter disappointment. There has been virtually no reduction in the aggregate amount of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana coming into the United States since President Reagan’s September 1981 speech.[3] This failure has created an impetus to search for scapegoats. Anti‐​drug militants in Congress, such as Sens. Paula Hawkins, Jeremiah Denton, and Strom Thurmond, charge that some foreign governments exhibit insufficient zeal in ferreting out narcotics traffickers. They threaten to propose legislation imposing trade sanctions and other penalties against recalcitrant regimes. Congressional conservatives and their ideological brethren in the administration also increasingly identify the narcotics issue with the larger cold war. They assert that Cuba, Bulgaria, Nicaragua, and other Marxist states are trafficking in drugs as part of a conspiracy to “destabilize” American society.

Even more disturbing than the heightened temper of domestic rhetoric is the evidence of adverse foreign policy ramifications. Regimes normally friendly to the United States are annoyed at America’s anti‐​drug obsession, especially the insensitive (on occasion, even boorish) behavior of the Reagan administration toward foreign governments not sharing the same attitude. Drug‐​crop eradication and substitution programs antagonize peasants and other growers, creating a reservoir of ill will toward the United States and toward governments that seem subservient to U.S. dictates. Throughout Asia and Latin America, the U.S. drug agent is rapidly becoming the new “ugly American.” Washington’s international anti‐​narcotics crusade is an operational failure that threatens to become a diplomatic catastrophe.

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