Supply-side war on drugs was a failure
At a recent regional summit of Latin American leaders last Saturday, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina announced his desires to end the taboo surrounding drug decriminalization and legalization to combat trafficking. He said the past 40 years of war against drugs in his country has been a failure. Guatemala’s domestic drug production and consumption is relatively low, but it is a checkpoint for cocaine and other narcotics being smuggled northwards from producers like Columbia and Peru.
For the first time in Latin American history, a president has proposed this decriminalization agenda while in office. Although Molina, a former army general, came into last November advocating an “iron fist” against criminal enterprise, he has since then moderated his position because of the high price of human life that the war on drugs has imposed on Central America. Rather than focus on supply reduction, which often entails direct military involvement against rebel groups and peasant coca farmers in South American countries, policymakers are asked to consider more demand reduction plans such as regulation, education or rehabilitation.
The shortcomings of prohibition, and other aggressive means of assaulting drug production, have been known since the 1920s and 30s during the alcohol prohibition era. Many believe that if the legislation had not been reversed alcohol consumption would have risen above the levels recorded before prohibition because of the extensive marketing networks of criminal enterprise. Without a legal, regulated market for narcotics the business becomes lucrative as demand skyrockets and supply dwindles.
Regardless of law enforcement efforts, nearly one-third of Canadians reported having consumed illicit drugs in 1994, with that proportion increasing to nearly half by 2004. Similarly, since 1975 at least 80 per cent of U.S. secondary school seniors have consistently said marijuana is “easy to obtain.” When polled about the war on drugs in 2008, about 75 per cent of Americans had the impression that it was failing.
This disparity has been officially recognized but barely discussed. During the Clinton administration a study called The RAND Drug Policy Research Center concluded that a demand-side “war on drugs” would be more successful (twenty-three times more) than the past legacy of supply-side warfare and that $3 billion ought to be shifted from law enforcement to treatment. A similar study done by RAND in 1986 evaluated the effects of using armed forces to intercept smuggling runs and found that there is little to no influence on overall traffic.
In The Pursuit of Oblivion, Richard Davenport-Hines notes that “at least” 75 per cent of illegal shipments would have to be sabotaged to damage the trafficker’s profits at all, because most of them have profit margins reaching up to 300 per cent. So far, the U.S. has never been able to damage more than ten to 15 per cent of heroin trade, or 30 per cent for cocaine. This is not even close to enough and, rather than having a real long-term effect on drug trafficking, the U.S. role in eradicating the South American coca leaf has only exacerbated radical inequalities between indigenous farming communities, left-wing rebel groups and U.S. aided paramilitaries and police forces.
For example, the $4.7 billion invested in Plan Colombia from 2000-2006 only shifted cocaine production further and further away from urban zones and more into remote communities that are increasingly hard to police, as government infrastructure lags behind in the Andes. There was no overall change in the amount of acres used to cultivate the drug and some of the production actually moved to neighboring Peru and Bolivia.
With the vast majority of its budget for the past decades of its existence being allocated primarily to law enforcement and military supply-side strategies, the U.S. has only exacerbated the profitability of drug trafficking and the intensity of rebel fury. Although the U.S. Department of State analyzes that Latin American traffickers have permeated much of its societies, and that their networks and equipment make them one of the most advanced security risks in the history of criminal enterprise, the battle plan for the war on drugs must be subject to more criticism.