It has been fifty years since the United States declared one of the costliest wars in its history – a trillion dollar campaign at home and abroad that continues today.
In June 1971, President Richard Nixon, alarmed by the rise of permissive hippie culture and drug use, sparked what would become the “War on Drugs,” a harsh approach to crime that mixed enforcement of the law. law, military action and a campaign of both frightening and reprimanded public messages. Aiming to reduce drug use in the United States, he severely criminalized drug use in the United States, while attacking the ability of international cartels to produce and export illicit narcotics, particularly from Latin America.
Did it work? Today we are looking at three major “battlefields”.
The producer: Colombia. In the 1980s, Colombia became the center of the global cocaine trade, which helped fuel the decades-long conflict between FARC guerrillas, drug cartels, paramilitaries and the Colombian government.
In 2000, Washington and Bogotá signed the multibillion-dollar Plan Colombia, in which the United States trained and equipped Colombian soldiers to crush militants and crack down on drug trafficking. To its credit, Plan Colombia helped force the FARC to negotiate a landmark peace deal in 2016 – but there has been no noticeable success against drugs. Coca cultivation is near historic highs, far exceeding levels seen even at Pablo Escobar’s heyday. And Colombian authorities continue to make record cocaine seizures.
The political problem is that the government has failed to deliver on promises to help farmers replace coca crops with legal crops. To do so would amount to ensuring security and economic opportunity in remote areas where the FARC has dissolved but narcos filled the void. Instead, the state focused on US-backed eradication programs: destroying coca crops either with environmentally dangerous aerial sprays or sending troops to tear up fields, plant by plant. Even Congress found in a 2020 report that the spray was not working. It just creates tensions between the farmers and the state, without diminishing the cultivation of coca for long.
For the 2016 peace agreement to be meaningful, this circle needs to be quadrupled. In Colombia, the war on drugs remains an obstacle to peace.
The intermediary: Mexico. After the U.S. federal government destroyed Caribbean transit routes in the 1980s connecting Andean producers and American consumers, overland routes through Mexico took off. Some 93 percent of drug flows from South America to the United States now pass through Mexico, according to an FBI estimate. These roads are controlled by the murderous and incredibly well-armed Mexican cartels who themselves today rule vast swathes of northern Mexico. Despite some joint American-Mexican successes, such as the elimination of the famous Baron El Chapo in 2014, the cartels are more powerful than ever.
Additionally, cooperation between the DEA and Mexican authorities broke down under the administration of Mexican Nationalist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, making matters worse.
All of this has contributed to the soaring homicide rate in Mexico, one of the highest in the world. And that’s a big deal for AMLO. He was elected in 2018 partly on promises to fight violence – but so far his “hugs, not bullets” approach has delivered more lead than love.
In short: the American war on drugs failed to cut off the enemy’s largest supply chain.
The consumer: the United States. “Just say no,” former US First Lady Nancy Reagan told us. That sizzling egg is your drugged brain, we have learned. And yet, decades later, rates of drug use in America – of all kinds – remain very high.
Meanwhile, a string of tough laws in the 1980s and 1990s that heavily criminalized drug possession blew up the prison population, helping to make America’s incarceration rate the highest in the world. And blacks and Latin Americans have suffered disproportionately: drug convictions are more frequent and sentences heavier than for whites, although rates of drug use are similar across racial groups.
But the policy is changing. More than 80 percent of Americans – on both sides – now say the war on drugs has failed, and two-thirds think it should end. A large majority is in favor of decriminalizing drug-related offenses.
So far, more than half of U.S. states have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption, and Oregon has done the same with harsher things. One of the thorniest debates today is how to ensure that the profits from legal drugs are used to help communities ravaged for decades by drug control.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Biden administration approved a bill that would eliminate disparities in convictions for crack versus powder cocaine (Biden actually helped draft the original sentencing law, known as the infamous name of the “1994 Crime Bill” package adopted by the Trump administration.
Yet the United States spends billions every year in drug-focused law enforcement. An arrest for drugs is carried out every 23 seconds, according to the activists. And overdose deaths have more than tripled in the past two decades amid a severe opioid crisis fomented not by distant cartels, but in fact by US pharmaceutical companies, including those belonging to the famous family. Sackler. The war on drugs has failed to dominate its biggest battlefield.
The last line (so to speak): After 50 years, the war on drugs has not, by a reasonable standard, been won. Is there a better way? Let us know here.