The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission: Charting a New Path Forward

December 2, 2020 • Testimony

Committee on Foreign Relations
United States House of Representatives

Dear Chairman Engel, Ranking Member McCaul, and members of the Committee:

I wish to express my appreciation to the chairman and members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs for the opportunity to submit this statement. The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission is addressing an important, but frequently underexamined, issue in our relations with our hemispheric neighbors. For decades, the United States has pursued a vigorous campaign to stamp out the trafficking in illegal drugs, as well as the use of such substances by American consumers. The campaign escalated dramatically when President Richard M. Nixon declared a “war” on drugs in 1971, and it has remained a high priority for U.S. policymakers since then.

That war has both demand‐​side and supply‐​side components. The latter seeks not only to interdict shipments of illegal drugs, but to eradicate drug crops, principally marijuana, cocaine, and opium poppies, in drug‐​source countries. The impact of the U.S.- led policy has been especially pronounced on Mexico, Central America, and the Andean countries of South America. Unfortunately, the strategy has not only failed to achieve the desired results, it has fostered increased corruption, social strains, and disorder in those societies. Worse, it has helped enrich and empower the most violence‐​prone criminal drug cartels. The Commission wisely seeks alternatives to the current, failed policy.

Washington’s focus on the Andean region peaked during the 1980s, 1990s, and the initial years of the twenty‐​first century. It subsequently has shifted north to Central America and, especially, to Mexico. The Andean phase exacerbated social tensions in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. Aerial spraying programs to eradicate coca and other drugsource crops were especially unpopular in Colombia during the years they were in effect because of both health concerns and adverse economic effects. It was during this period that the Colombian drug cartels rose to unprecedented prominence and influence. Astonishingly, Colombia’s defense minister, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, stated just this week that he wants to resume the aerial spraying programs that were suspended in 2015, despite that dismal track record. Indications are that the U.S. government would enthusiastically endorse such a resumption.

The negative impact of drug eradication campaigns in Peru and Bolivia is somewhat less severe than in Colombia, but it has been bad enough. Among other consequences, it helped create extensive political support for radical left‐​wing political figures such as Bolivia’s former president, Evo Morales. Beleaguered coca farmers long have been the core of his political base. More recently, income from drug trafficking has helped fund and empower Venezuela’s authoritarian regime.

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