in The New York Times was more
measured: "U.S. Remains Opposed to
Drug Legalization, Biden Tells Region." But the story, juxtaposing Washington's
intransigence with the desperation of Latin American leaders sucked into a war
with the drug cartels they aren't winning, was a sobering reminder of the parochialism
of U.S. drug policy and its impact on other countries.
Vice President Joe Biden, who did manage to couch his
brush-off of Latin American concerns in diplomatic language, is certainly right
that legalization would be no
panacea. What no U.S. politician seems willing to acknowledge, though, is
that supply-side fixes to drug abuse have been disastrous to the economies and
civil societies of supplying countries because they make the illicit drug
business irresistibly profitable. The big question is not whether, but when, Latin
Americans will have the temerity to challenge the United States' malign
detour for some basic economics. If the sole goal of drug policy is to reduce
consumption, one can get from here to there either by restricting supply or by convincing
users to forego the experience. Both approaches can, in theory, get the job
done -- to a point. But there is one (well, more than one, but let's keep this
simple) big difference between them: Restricting supply raises prices, while
reducing demand lowers prices.
of supply -- which, by
treaty, the United States and most other countries strive for -- need not
raise the profitability of producing and selling drugs, provided the
restrictions also substantially raise the drug dealer's expenses. For example, the
imposition of the death penalty for drug trafficking in a country with an
efficient, honest police force (like Singapore) might be expected to raise the
expected "cost" of trafficking so much that few people would consider
apparently isn't the case in the United States, the globe's premier consuming country
for most drugs (hard and soft) -- or for the major producing and entrepôt countries
that supply the United States, Asia and Europe. Indeed, the illicit drug trade
is so profitable in these places that it has given organized crime the power to
undermine civil society in supplying countries.
of course, was once the poster country for the collateral damage caused by the effort
to suppress drugs. Having fed organized crime and related political terrorism there
for decades, the production of cocaine was finally brought under control by a U.S.-supported
military effort that cost thousands of lives and did significant harm to Colombia's
legal economy that will take years to overcome. But wars on drug suppliers aren't
won - they just move around.
drug cartels have largely filled the gap left by the success of supply
suppression in Columbia. Indeed, according to the
U.S. Department of Justice, Mexican gangs have also sharply increased
production and distribution of heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, as Asian,
South American and Caribbean suppliers (as well as U.S. producers of meth and
marijuana) have withered under government heat. That explains why consumption
of all illicit drugs, with the possible exception of cocaine, is still on the
rise in the United States. And why drug gangs have been able to undermine the
quality of life in Mexico along its border with the United States. Some 50,000
people have reportedly
died in drug violence in Mexico in the past six years.
fluid nature of the drug trade is generating one especially poignant casualty:
Costa Rica. This tiny country, celebrated for having no army (and no wars since
1948), had largely escaped the civil wars and horrendous street crime that have
dogged the rest of Central America in recent years. But the drug cartels' new use
of Costa Rica as a drug entrepôt has sharply
increased violent crime there, forcing the government to beef up its police
there was little opposition to U.S. drug policy in Latin America except in a few
countries -- notably, Bolivia and Venezuela. But the cumulative devastation
that supply-side remedies have caused, and perhaps the end of the pragmatic
imperative to stand with the United States in opposition to leftist regimes, is
changing the political calculus. In 2009 three former Latin American leaders, Fernando
Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and César Gaviria of
Colombia, chaired a commission calling for a paradigm
shift, a fresh start on drug policy focusing on demand-side treatment.
and Argentina have since decriminalized possession of marijuana for personal
use. And Mexican President Felipe Calderón has indicated a willingness to go
further, mentioning "market
alternatives" for hard drugs -- a euphemism for legalization.
February, Guatemalan President Otto Perez, caught between his army's
inclination to take no prisoners in its attack on the drug trade and Washington's
critique of his human rights record, came
out in favor of legalization. And days before Biden's trip south, Costa
Rican President Laura Chinchilla echoed the sentiment. "If we keep doing
what we have been ... we'll never get anywhere and could wind up like Mexico or Colombia,"
into the U.S. presidential election season, Biden's message to Latin America was
inevitable: The Obama administration isn't about to pick a fight with suburban
swing voters more worried about the temptations facing their teenage children
than the carnage in Mexico.
the only thing clear about the Obama administration's view on drugs is its
ambivalence. The president's "drug czar," Gil Kerlikowske, who had earlier served as Seattle's chief of police,
favors a tilt toward demand-side treatment, tacitly (very tacitly) implying that
the current supply-side drug policy is a disaster in slow motion. But the
Justice Department has warned that federal laws against marijuana sale pre-empt
state laws, leading a few hundred California medical marijuana dispensaries to close
down. And in any event, budget-strapped, Tea Party-haunted Washington is in
no mood to coddle drug addicts.
isn't 1933, when the Marines installed Anastasio Samoza (and FDR allegedly
explained, "He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch")
as dictator in Nicaragua. Or even 1989, when George H.W. Bush invaded Panama to
arrest Manuel Noriega for drug trafficking. Latin American leaders pressing for
changes in drug policy may not get much sympathy from Washington. But
Washington may not be able to prevent the disengagement of Latin America from
the war on drugs, especially if larger countries like Mexico, Brazil and
Argentina take the lead.
an airy-fairy issue of principle: Like its counterpart in the United States, the
Latin American middle class associates
hard drugs with crime and poverty and fears the potential consequences of
decriminalizing them. But in Latin America, unlike the United States, the dangers
of ongoing confrontation with well-financed, well-organized and very violent
gangs also resonate.
to the vice president's affirmation of current U.S. policy isn't likely to
translate into the aforementioned "paradigm shift" anytime soon. But
it does signal that the interests of Latin American leaders are diverging from
those of U.S. politicians who see less risk in policy-as-usual than in
challenging the premises of the supply-side approach. And as Herb Stein,
Richard Nixon's economic advisor, once put it, "If something cannot go on
forever, it will stop."
Julio Cesar Aguilar/AFP/Getty Images