Revisiting Counter-Narcotics Policy in the Western Hemisphere

The global consensus on illicit drugs is weakening. The United States, alongside allies and partners, needs to push back against this trend. A broad-based understanding of drugs as a global challenge needs to be reinforced. The importance of such a push comes in the wake of Gustavo Petro’s inauguration as president of Colombia. Not even a month in the office and President Petro began a conversation on the legalization of drugs in Colombia—most recently marijuana and cocaine decriminalization—while calling for a regional conference to discuss an even broader revamp of drug policy in the Americas. Petro is not the first person in the region to advocate for such a policy. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) also suggested such legislation in 2019 and so far, Mexico has experienced an increased volume of organized drug crime and drug related violence. In the span of four days, more than 260 people lost their lives this August due to drug cartel violence in various Mexican cities, including Chihuahua, Guanajuato, Jalisco, and Tijuana. Such an eruption speaks to the human cost of this reluctance to clamp down on narcotics and the criminal organizations they fuel. 

The U.S. response to these trends has lacked direction and conviction. A dangerous sentiment is taking root—that the fight against illegal narcotics is a battle which should not be fought. For decades the United States and its allies have experienced both successes and setbacks working to address some of the globe's most pressing challenges, including preventing nuclear proliferation, addressing the challenges of climate change and environmental degradation, and confronting poverty. No one ever claims the United States should “give up” on any of these fights even when there are setbacks. It is curious that the fight against narcotics seems to be treated differently than the other transnational threats listed above.

The campaign against narcotics should be seen in the same light as an enduring, eminently worthy effort similar to the fight against the proliferation of nuclear weapons or confronting global corruption. However, in revisiting the global effort against drugs, policymakers should not forget the high toll previous counter-narcotics efforts have exacted, especially upon the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, in the now more than half-century history of the war on drugs, many lives have been lost and rights denied unjustly under misaligned or corrupted antidrug policies. Yet while there have been mistakes and even abuses, these mistakes do not warrant capitulation. Claiming that the lack of a decisive victory against drug use creates the very false choice that there is no other option other than legalization. This false argument which should be strongly rejected.

Fentanyl and Narco-geopolitics

Illicit drugs are not merely a criminal issue, but increasingly play a role in great power competition. The Chinese Communist Party is the primary actor. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that serves as a painkiller. However, it is a drug that has an elevated risk of abuse and addiction. Before 2019, China was the main player in sourcing the primary materials for the creation of fentanyl and its manufacturing. However, the People’s Republic of China imposed class-wide regulations on fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances. In 2019, the U.S. State Department identified at least 160,000 illegal and legal chemical companies operating in China, some of which produced the foundational ingredients for the lethal drug. The Chinese chemical industry is severely underregulated and the lack of control on the sector has allowed fentanyl precursors to be exported—with major tax reductions—to fentanyl producing countries. The United States needs Beijing’s cooperation to curb the export of fentanyl-related substances and that cooperation is limited at best.

In the aftermath of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China has signaled its lack of interest in combating the illicit drug trafficking enterprise. By withholding cooperation with the United States to tackle this issue, more fentanyl ingredients flow out of China. This lucrative business is further intermeshed with environmental concerns, especially wildlife trade and trafficking where Chinese ingredient suppliers exchange their narcotics and their precursors for wildlife from Mexico. Furthermore, the move evidences a willingness on the part of Beijing to wield counter-narcotics efforts as a bargaining chip in the service of broader geopolitical aims.

Often, fentanyl flows into the U.S. and the Latin American region by way of Mexico as cartels such as the Sinaloa and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation receive the chemical ingredients to manufacture the drug. The ingredients are transformed into both a powder or pill form and distributed to the United States. Illicit fentanyl is recognized as 50 times more potent than heroin. In the United States alone, from February 2021 to February 2022, 109,000 people died due to synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

As Chinese substance control laws changed, alterations to the ingredients at the molecular level occurred, which led to the creation of various analogs. While there is some regulated and legitimate manufacturing of both fentanyl and derivatives by the medical and veterinary industries, often the process of manufacturing fentanyl can change the chemical arrangements with the slightest addition of oxygen, and numerous other added chemicals can create new entities. The process is too variable. The synthetics crisis is ever evolving. The nature of the chemistry involved in these substances makes it near impossible for a country even with a willing legal regime (which China lacks) to effectively prohibit their manufacture. Fentanyl is a killer, and the new entities can be even more potent.

A notable analog of fentanyl is carfentanil, a substance 10,000 more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl. Even the most minuscule exposure to this synthetic opioid can be lethal, so much so that the approved concentration of 2 milligrams can sedate an elephant and can kill roughly 50 people. Both fentanyl and carfentanil are inexpensive to make therefore can be found cut into and mixed with other highly aggressive narcotics like cocaine and heroin to make a concoction that can generate an overdose in seconds. 

Drugs, both synthetic and plant-based, have negatively impacted the entire Western Hemisphere. The costs of continued inaction risks not only the lives of U.S. citizens, but also contains regional and potentially global implications for stability. Moreover, the Drug Enforcement Administration noted that criminal drug networks are mass-producing counterfeit pills, and it is increasingly difficult to make the distinction between prescription pills and counterfeit ones. Globally, counterfeit drugs make up 10 percent of the drug market and in 2021, over 9.5 million counterfeit pills were seized in the United States. The U.S. stock of counterfeit pills opens the possibility that broad swaths of Americans are taking illicit narcotics without their knowledge.

Coca Eradication

While fentanyl and its analogues are relatively new challenges, an enduring issue the Western Hemisphere confronts is coca eradication. Increasingly, these two issues overlap as drug trafficking cartels cut cocaine exports with fentanyl and other synthetics to increase its potency, with often deadly consequences. The United States urgently should reevaluate, recommit, and revamp its strategy toward eradicating coca plants.

The conversation about eradicating coca production has been happening for the last several years. However, despite former president Iván Duque Márquez’s measures, often violent, to manually destroy laboratories and seize cocaine, coca cultivation remains persistent. In July, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) released data that coca cultivation and production remain high in Colombia: approximately 234,000 hectares of coca cultivation and 972 metric tons of cocaine. Furthermore, the introduction of new and higher-yield coca strands exacerbates these challenges by allowing drug cartels to generate greater quantities even with fewer hectares under cultivation, upending traditional metrics for tracking reduction.

Moreover, coca production is also elevated in Peru and Bolivia. Both countries faced a substantial increase in coca production in 2020 given the decreased efforts to combat coca production during the quarantine due to Covid-19. According to the ONDCP, coca cultivation and cocaine production in Peru has steadily grown to 88,200 hectares and 810 metric tons respectively. In the case of Bolivia, a legal coca cultivation regime exists in the Yungas and Chaparé regions. However, these regions remain heavily impacted by intersecting criminal and trafficking interests, as criminal groups continue to expand their illicit cocaine operations within ostensibly legal coca-growing territories.

A potentially lethal dose of cocaine is 1.2 grams. Thus, the cocaine production estimates remain at detrimental levels. In 2020, roughly, 20,000 deaths have occurred in the United States because of cocaine overdoses, and countless lives altered due to the enormous addictive properties of the drug. 

Guaranteeing alternative livelihoods for coca producers is also critical to ensure a sustained reduction in cocaine cultivation. Coca growers often represent vulnerable, rural populations, who receive very little from drug trafficking organizations in return for their involvement in high-risk agricultural activities. Integrating these farmers into the licit economy through crop substitution not only will curb coca cultivation but supports sustainable development. In Colombia, while the 2016 Peace Agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) allowed for a Crop Substitution Program to take place with the goal of eradicating coca and replacing it with other crops, persistent insecurity and insufficient funding for the farmers enrolled in the program has hindered success. There are scarce alternatives to the illegal cultivation and the Colombian government has yet to fulfill its promises of supporting the poor and vulnerable farmers. Fortunately, the long-standing U.S.-Colombian partnership in the battle against illicit drugs can provide a wealth of best practices as well as lessons learned to guide an improved parallel strategy of substitution and eradication, but only if both parties find the political willpower to do so.

However, in the same way that changing a small piece of the fentanyl formula can create a myriad of new analogs, Colombia faces more cocaine production than ever despite the coca eradication plans. Drug traffickers and manufacturers will find a way to keep up with their trade. As members of the ex-FARC mafia and new armed groups have appeared and compete for control over Colombia’s drug trade, violence continues to flare. Meanwhile, Colombia’s neighbor, Venezuela, is also experiencing a surge in cocaine production as criminal groups, often working hand in glove with the Maduro regime, expand their operations. Thus, regardless of the success of U.S. and Colombian efforts to eradicate coca, Maduro and his regime will be persistent in producing cocaine as drug trafficking has been one of the critical pillars of his criminal economy. If Washington and Bogotá both want to ensure the peace process is durable, the organized criminal groups responsible for fomenting insecurity must be cut off from their revenue streams.

Taking Stock

Despite the rising challenge of fentanyl and other synthetics and the enduring challenge of coca cultivation, the Biden administration has been mute on counter-narcotics. This is unfortunate, as drugs intersect with several key items on the president’s agenda.

Indeed, drugs are a key root cause for the Biden administration’s “root causes” strategy to address issues of migration. Drugs are interwoven between corruption and insecurity, all of which hypercharge migration flows. Thus, while administration has accurately identified issues such as corruption as a major ill and taken steps to elevate countering corruption around rule of law and transparent governance, such efforts will struggle unless steps towards addressing illegal narcotics follow suit. Illicit economies fuel corruption and graft at every level and drugs are some of the worst offenders in this regard, disrupting the lives and livelihoods of countless individuals while undercutting U.S. efforts in the region. If the Biden administration truly wants to get to the root causes of migration and not just symptoms, it should elevate counter-narcotics policies as well.

There are other ruinous activities such as illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing—a key priority for the Biden administration—and trafficking of persons who often support and accompany the smuggling of illicit drugs and the trafficking of persons across borders, including the U.S. southern border. The United States has not given up on complex multidimensional issues such as trafficking in persons and combating IUU fishing; therefore, there is no reason to give up efforts on the war on drugs. 

With respect to the administration’s climate and conservation priorities as well, illicit crop cultivation practices and drug production often have a very negative (and rarely covered) impacts on wetlands and jungles throughout countries such as Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador.

In 2020, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission highlighted that narcotics are an “increasingly complex threat [that] requires a more agile, adaptive long-term strategy.” The United States does need a long-term strategy and the Biden administration should put one forward. The U.S. Congress should also revisit counter-narcotics strategy in the next Congress. A new strategy would require support across both political parties.

The United States needs cooperation from at times reluctant allies and partners. Achieving cooperation from allies is going to be even more difficult going forward and will be a fraught process and progress. Internationally, the United States will need to deploy its diplomatic acumen and call upon long-standing partnerships throughout the hemisphere to generate new ways to combat drugs and their related instability.

In communicating with partners both in the region and farther afield, the United States needs to renew its own commitment to domestic demand reduction. Critics of past counter-narcotics strategies have maintained that in the past Washington has focused too much on supply-side efforts, blaming other countries for their failure to contain the drug industry, without looking inwards to examine the lucrative drug marketplace within its borders.

Measures such as more aggressive anti-money laundering protocols to target the profits of drug dealers, alongside stronger messaging about the risks of illegal narcotics will not only advance the fight against drugs—they will also signal U.S. commitment and leadership on this key issue throughout the hemisphere. 

The United States needs to also re-stigmatize illicit drug consumption within the general public similar to the way public littering, certain junk foods, and cigarettes have been stigmatized.

Now is the time for a bipartisan coalition of policymakers concerned about climate change, poverty, corruption, and social inequality to come together around the issue of counter-narcotics. A high-level bipartisan commitment is needed to address illicit drugs. The consequences of abdicating leadership on counter-narcotics issue are devastating, both for U.S. citizens and vulnerable populations throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Daniel F. Runde is senior vice president, William A. Schreyer Chair, and director of the Project on Prosperity and Development and Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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