Rebuilding the National and Global Consensus Against Illicit Narcotics: An Agenda for the Next President

Generating over $322 billion a year , nearly triple the total amount of foreign assistance spent annually , illegal narcotics are a “public bad”—encouraging corruption, corroding institutions, and increasing security and health costs, especially in weak or vulnerable states. The next president needs to lead on strengthening a frayed national and global consensus on illegal narcotics.

The narcotics trade promotes criminal networks in all countries, developing or developed, affects every area of society, and further weakens failed and stolen states. In recent years, U.S. government agencies have emphasized “soft” (e.g., international development related) solutions in partnership with developing countries rather than primarily “kinetic” (e.g., military or law enforcement–based) approaches.

In 2014, nearly 50,000 Americans died of fatal drug overdoses , double the number of drug-related deaths in 2000. As a global leader in international development, the United States has made substantial commitments to combat these harmful effects on the societies of developing countries. Current internal and external efforts have been costly, reaching over $100 billion annually with some success but many setbacks.

For the United States to succeed, it must find ways to decrease demand primarily through prevention and decrease supply through cooperation with friendly governments through successful and aggressive “hard” (military/police) and “soft” (international development and international development related) strategies. The costs of drug consumption to developing country societies are often ignored in the national discussion: violence, corruption, environmental damage, and reduced quality of life. Ending the consumption and production of illegal drugs is an important long-term goal requiring U.S. leadership.

Because U.S. federal legalization is unlikely within the next five years, the next administration must focus on international and domestic efforts to reduce detrimental effects on communities in both developed and developing countries.

Historically, the United States has treated drug control as a serious criminal threat while neglecting the enormous social and health costs. In the early twentieth century, the United States began its war on drugs, passing the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914 to forbid the sale and manufacture of marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and morphine. With the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) in 1930, drug use was further criminalized, leading to harsher penalties for users and dealers; the agenda set by the FBN shifted U.S. perspectives on the drug trade toward a harsh, “drug-free” approach.

After heroin surged in the late 1960s, methadone treatments for heroin addicts became temporarily successful while very controversial among the general public because of the concern that the U.S. government was condoning illicit drug use. Policymakers slowly transitioned toward a model of what is now known as “harm reduction,” a strategy that aims to reduce the negative consequences of drug users for whom abstinence is not possible , to achieve a drug-free future domestically and internationally. While overall illicit drug use has increased in the past 10 years, use of most drugs has stabilized or decreased, with the exception of marijuana.

Domestically, the United States has made strides in reducing demand for illegal narcotics, particularly through community-based programs. Project Towards No Drug Abuse (TND), a school-based preventative initiative targeting at-risk teens in Los Angeles, works to empower teens through better decisionmaking and improved social skills. Compared to other students in the area, TND students exhibited a 25 percent reduction in hard drug use over a one-year period. Focusing efforts and funding on preventative, evidence-based approaches play an integral role in a successful counternarcotics strategy at the national, state, and local level.

The United States has had some success in reducing supply production in some countries. For example, Plan Colombia, initiated under President Bill Clinton in 2000, has been globally recognized as a major success thanks to the excellent leadership of former president Alvaro Uribe and has significantly reduced the value of Colombia’s narcotic trade from $7.5 billion to $4.5 billion and increased the professionalism and capacity of the Colombian police. At the same time, there have been some costs, including concerns about extrajudicial casualties and human rights abuses. U.S. government assistance, through programs like the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP) in Colombia, have contributed tremendously to reforming the justice system through improving crime scene processing, upholding the prosecution of human rights offenders, and providing increased protection for witnesses, prosecutors, and investors.

In other countries, success in reducing production has been more elusive. For example, Afghanistan faces even greater hurdles from the narcotics trade. Approximately 40 percent of the Taliban’s funding is derived from poppy cultivation , and one in nine Afghans uses illegal drugs, primarily opioids. With over 42 percent of the population living below the national poverty line and a perceived lack of political will by President Ashraf Ghani to address these growing problems, U.S.-led efforts to combat the detrimental effects of the drug trade have had some success but could achieve Plan Colombia levels of success with a willing government partner.

Starting in 2013, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launched the massive Kandahar Food Zone Program (KFZ) to spearhead alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers, successfully reaching over 8,000 former poppy farmers. In 2015,opium production fell 48 percent. However, the narcotics trade still comprises over 27 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, and a lack of infrastructure, political will, and governance throughout the country significantly amplify the consequences of opium production.

The United States has significant economic and security interests in addressing the challenges of the narcotics trade through more targeted and unified approaches. First, current programs are costly—over $25.6 billion was allocated for federal counternarcotics efforts in 2015. Second, the narcotics trade funds transnational criminal and terrorist networks, including the Taliban, al Qaeda, and other notorious groups. Finally, U.S. consumption of narcotics places an enormous burden on U.S. health care infrastructure, costing upwards of $193 billion annually , surpassing annual health and social expenditures onobesity,smoking, and automobile accidents.

Domestically, the U.S. government should focus its efforts on:

  • Strengthening effective domestic prevention programs. An increased emphasis on effective drug prevention programs could strongly reduce U.S. drug consumption. Recent cost-benefit analyses suggest that every dollar spent on substance abuse prevention leads to 10 dollars saved . Focusing on specific populations, emphasizing community-based approaches, and funding evidence-based programs could channel federal funding more effectively.
  • Implementing long-term counternarcotics strategies at the state level. Public health departments at the state level determine comprehensive strategies for many chronic diseases taking place over five years or more; in many states, such as West Virginia, drug addiction has developed into a significant public health crisis, with heroin overdose deaths tripling since 2012 . Creating plans to address drug addiction as a disease while also confronting the social and criminal consequences can better target individual state’s challenges.
  • Treating narcotics addiction as a disease. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug addiction is a disease that changes the structure and chemistry of the brain and afflicts victims with a compulsive desire to consume drugs in spite of negative effects on themselves or others. Though President Obama’s national drug strategy states a focus on preventative measures, lower incarceration rates for minor drug offenses, and increased access to recovery initiatives, a lack of bipartisan support limits its scope.
  • Encouraging interagency cooperation. The United States has had some success in increasing interagency cooperation among agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, the USAID, and the State Department. Some interagency cooperation reports and taskforces exist ; however, a truly holistic approach, including sharing data, lessons learned, and strategies, is necessary to fully combat the narcotics trade.

However, domestic efforts alone cannot address growing repercussions of the narcotics trade. Developing partnerships with affected nations is integral to making progress during the next administration. To alleviate the enormous social and economic costs on developing countries, the next administration should:

Though countering the effects of the narcotics trade is a long and arduous process, the next administration has significant incentives to reconsider the current U.S. approach. With legalization an unlikely choice, the United States must consider increasing its efforts to reduce demand and reduce supply through more creative policy options. The large, growing social and economic burden of drug use and addiction in the United States and in developing countries must be addressed with a redoubling of efforts. It will require U.S. leadership. If the next U.S. president assumes leadership in addressing these global challenges, many domestic and international allies will follow.

Daniel F. Runde holds the Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis and is director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Julie Snyder is the program coordinator with the CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development.

This report 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).

© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development

Julie Snyder