Is It Time to Rethink the Drug Problem In the Americas?

Recently, the Organization of American States (OAS) released a pair of reports addressing the current state of the narcotics trade in the Western Hemisphere: The Drug Problem in the Americas and Scenarios for the Drug Problem in the Americas. The reports stress that the drug problem involves the entire hemisphere, albeit categorized between producing, trafficking, and consuming countries. As a solution, the report suggests a coordinated, multilateral approach to its mitigation.

The report proposes four scenarios as potential paths for the hemisphere’s efforts to manage the drug problem. One of these scenarios, the “Pathways” approach, suggests that countries should consider experimenting with new drug policies—not to the exclusion of decriminalization, or even legalization and regulation efforts. The report asserts that this might lead to policies that would better allocate state resources, shrink criminal markets and profits, and stem drug related deaths and crime.

In the United States, many have interpreted the "Pathways" approach of the report to be an official promotion of marijuana legalization and regulation. Needless to say, this proposition, especially in the context of the gradual shifts in U.S. public opinion toward supporting some form of marijuana legalization as evidenced by Gallup Politics’ 2011 poll and report, has stirred up substantial controversy in the United States. But why does the OAS report matter for the Americas?

Q1: If a government considers legalization, which drugs are on the table, and why? Could an effective framework be developed that both regulates the production and sale of controlled substances, and reduces drug-related crime and violence?

A1: Drug legalization has traditionally been off the table in OAS discussions regarding hemispheric efforts to mitigate the drug problem. The report is a departure from the existing dialogue.

Any discussion of legalizing drugs must include answers to important follow-up questions: For which drug(s) is legalization a feasible course of action? How would legalization work? Would legalizing drugs cut down on the widespread violence and crime that has plagued the current anti-legalization regime? Would legalizing drugs cut into the profits of transnational drug trafficking, making it harder to conduct "business"?

The report’s approach is a constructive attempt at setting the stage for answering these very important questions.

The U.S. government justifies its anti-legalization policy by alleging that “the revenue gained through a regulated market most likely will not keep pace with the financial and social cost of making this drug more accessible.”

But according to the OAS report, the violence generated by the trade of illegal drugs, which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates sends between $19 and $29 billion across the southern border each year, might well be stymied by less restrictive marijuana usage laws.

By “downplaying the role of the criminal justice system in drug control,” the government might eliminate “a business with profits that distort economies, enrich and empower organized crime, and foster public sector corruption," the report states.

Still, the report is careful to limit legalization to marijuana, maintaining that hard drugs, such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroin, remain too dangerous and destructive to justify their inclusion in legalization efforts.

Q2: What do current trends in the Americas reveal? Is the region listening to the OAS?

A2: The report, which was commissioned by OAS at the request of a number of its Latin American member states at last year’s Summit of the Americas, has attracted positive attention from the region’s leaders. Though only the Uruguayan government has seriously considered legalizing marijuana to date, regional heads of state have asserted their support for the report’s approach to the issue.

Much of the attention the OAS report has garnered in the United States has focused exclusively on the marijuana legalization scenario, highlighted in the "Pathways" approach. But this approach is one of four the report lays out. The “Together Plan,” “Resilience,” and “Disruption” approaches each offer a distinct set of possibilities for the actions countries in the hemisphere could implement to deal with the drug problem.

The "Together Plan" approaches the drug problem as one of institutional weakness and suggests building the capacity of the region’s judicial and public safety institutions to improve citizen security and stymie the problem and its ill effects.

In contrast, the "Resilience" approach views the drug problem as a “manifestation of underlying social and economic dysfunctions that lead to violence and addiction” and proposes social change that might strengthen communities, making them more robust to the influences of drugs and the drug trade.

Finally, the "Disruption" approach sees the drug problem purely as insufferably costly to fight against for production and transit countries, and suggests abandoning the fight because of the spiraling violence and death tolls associated with it.

Q3: Why has the U.S. response to the report focused on the legalization scenario when it is just one of four that the OAS put forward?

A3: The U.S. reaction is reflective of recent trends regarding public policy and public opinion.
Given that marijuana is the leading imported narcotic into the United States, many believe that legalizing marijuana would help lessen crime and the violence associated with its trafficking.

The U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) estimated that in 2006, almost 15,000 metric tons of marijuana were transported from Mexico to the United States, while estimates of the combined amount of cocaine crossing the same border in 2008 total less than 200 metric tons. More recent reports from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime name Mexico and Paraguay as the world’s leading producers of marijuana, together comprising almost three-quarters of global production of the drug in 2008.

ONDCP estimates place the total value of the drugs trafficked across the southern border between $23 and $28 billion each year—and only roughly $3 billion of that total is derived from the trade of cocaine, with the bulk of the value coming directly from the movement of marijuana.

It should come as no surprise, then, that in their National Drug Threat Assessment 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that more than 99 percent of illegal drug seizures along the southern border involve marijuana—and 96 percent of the marijuana trafficked into the United States came through that border in 2011. Given the overwhelming role of marijuana in the cross-border drug trade, it follows that the drug should figure prominently in policy discussions. Attitudes in the United States are consistent with this reasoning.

According to the ONDCP, 18 states and Washington, D.C. have “passed laws allowing smoked marijuana to be used for a variety of medical conditions,” while the state governments of Washington and Colorado both legalized marijuana in 2012—though producing, selling, or possessing marijuana remains illegal under federal law.

According to the Gallup poll mentioned above, more U.S. citizens support legalization of the drug than ever before; the majority swung in favor of legalization for the first time in the nation’s history in 2011, while a full 70 percent supported legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Conclusion: In a conflict as complex and long-running as the “war on drugs,” it is not surprising that leaders in the fight might propose innovative solutions given the intractability of the problem. The OAS Report did just that. Given that the United States is increasingly mired in domestic debates over state and federal marijuana policy, perhaps broader reforms are the next steps to ending the cycle of drug-related violence that continues to plague our nation and the hemisphere.

Carl Meacham is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jillian Rafferty, an intern scholar with the Americas Program, provided research assistance.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Carl Meacham