Time to End the Drug War

en. Barry McCaffrey, the U.S. drug czar, recently suggested that the Organization of American States take responsibility for determining which countries are cooperating in the war against drugs. While having the OAS pass judgment on the anti-narcotics efforts of each country might save the U.S. government from some diplomatic squabbles with its Latin American neighbors, it would not affect the U.S. drug problem.

That problem is the result of America’s harsh anti-drug laws, which “have greatly contributed to a rise in violence and to the criminalization of vast sectors (especially the African-American population) of an increasingly fractured society,” according to a new report from the Geopolitical Drug Watch.

Washington, however, has incessantly blamed Latin Americans for the drug-related woes of the United States. “If only those foreigners weren’t bringing drugs into our country,” goes the argument. Latin Americans, for their part, are growing increasingly tired of Washington’s holier-than-thou attitude and would like the U.S. government to shoulder more responsibility for the problems (at home and abroad) created by drug trafficking.

Holding the United States (partially) responsible for Latin America’s drug-related woes might sound like a revival of the anti-Americanism that has been waning in recent years in much of the region. It is not. The United States is the single largest market for illicit drugs in the world, accounting for roughly one-eighth (about $50 billion) of the total world market. As a result, the drug laws and policies of the United States affect not only U.S. society but also the societies of drug-source and drug-transit countries.

Because a majority of drugs consumed in the United States are produced in Latin America, the U.S. government has turned that region into the main battleground of its international war on drugs. But trying to stop drugs at the border or at the source makes no economic sense, so long as drugs remain illegal in the United States. In the illicit drug industry, most of the value of those drugs (as much as 90 percent) is added after they enter the United States. That merely reflects the fact that the risk premium of selling drugs increases as the drugs approach the point of retail sale.

Consequently, efforts to eradicate crops and interdiction of traffic — that is, efforts to reduce the supply of drugs — put only a small dent in the profit margins of traffickers.

The decriminalization of drugs in the United States would inevitably lower or eliminate the risks of drug trafficking and, consequently, the huge profit margins of drug traffickers. But rather than admit that the solution can be found at home, the U.S. government exercises its considerable leverage to coerce other countries to collaborate with it in an unwinnable war.

The certification process whereby the U.S. government rules on the anti-narcotics efforts of drug-producing or drug-transit countries is at the heart of that war. Certification is an arbitrary and hypocritical exercise. Mexico’s anti-drug efforts, for instance, are not any better than Colombia’s. Evidence of drug-related violence and corruption is just as manifest in Mexico as it is in Colombia, and yet Mexico was certified again this year while Colombia was decertified for the second consecutive time. Of course, the reason Mexico was certified is that it shares with the United States huge economic interests that could have been greatly disturbed if President Clinton had imposed sanctions against Mexico.

Unfortunately, the mere threat of decertification has prompted Mexico, where drug-related violence has dramatically increased in the last months, to step up its own prohibition measures. For example, the Mexican government recently granted additional surveillance powers to the police forces as well as the military — which has in effect become the main actor in the fight against drugs in Mexico.

Washington may consider the militarization of Latin American societies a welcome development in its war on drugs. But the certification process — whether unilateral or multilateral — has failed and will continue to fail to stop the flow of illegal narcotics into the United States. Its only significant “accomplishment,” in fact, will be to weaken the fragile democracies of the region.

L. Jacobo Rodríguez is assistant director of the Project on Global Economic Liberty at the Cato Institute.