By: Casey Anderson
Two states in the United States recently passed measures legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. While this is treated as a somewhat comical situation in the U.S., it has unintended ramifications for foreign policy in Latin America with regards to the war on drugs. The United States has historically shaped drug policy in Latin America, ensuring the propagation of militant values in regards to production.
Supply-Side Drug Enforcement
The U.S.’s “War on Drugs” has led to widespread military campaigns in Latin America to halt production. The publication of a controversial report written by the Global Commission on Drug Policy (partly composed of former Latin American heads of state) exposes the fundamental difference in assumptions underlying drug policies. While the Obama administration may have dropped the terminology “war on drugs,” it still follows the same policy prescriptions with the goal of reducing the availability of drugs. The ONDCP (Office of National Drug Control Policy) dictates that the mere availability of drugs spurs addiction. That supply creates its own demand.
This report advocates that recreational users who do not harm society should not be criminalized but instead treated and that legalization provides a pathway for decreased violence as a result of taking the product from black markets. The report concludes that addressing demand is the solution to problems of addiction and violence. A recent study of decriminalization efforts in Portugal found that there was a correlation between decriminalization of all drugs and decreased drug usage amongst teenagers, lower rates of HIV, decreased use of injection drugs, and a reduction of prison overcrowding.
This supply-side explanation, which argues that the best way to curb growth is to erect high barriers and increase regulations to production (If there is no supply, there will be no demand), is compelling, but it is based upon a very narrow and limited understanding of the problem that overlooks the nature of addiction, the goals of the sovereignty where drug production occurs, and the negative externalities of drug-related violence.
Focusing efforts on curbing production to reduce supply, as opposed to reducing demand by means of treatment programs, generates massive levels of violence, including civilian casualties. The Global Commission argues that the level of violence is an unacceptable regulatory spillover and a sign of failed policy.
Not only does the creation of black markets divert resources that could be used to promote economic growth, but the extreme violence also has negative consequences on growth.
While the destruction of crops has decreased the world supply of drugs, with decreased supply come increased prices (if there is no change in demand). Drugs are inelastic goods; regardless of price a drug user will continue to purchase drugs. Therefore, eliminating parts of the supply does not harm drug traffickers directly. Increased costs are passed on in the form of higher prices to consumers. Thus policies emphasizing decreasing demand are not precise in targeting traffickers, instead they bluntly attack this perceived threat without distinguishing between actors. This creates a situation where United States foreign policy is simply driving up drug prices for domestic consumers. Furthermore, because the source of the profit motivation is not removed, eradication efforts in one country simply divert production to another, ensuring the perpetuation of the problem of supply.
Referendum on Drug Policy
The legalization of marijuana in two American states serves as a referendum on what are seen as the perceived failures of the U.S. War on Drugs, sending a clear signal to Latin America that its militant policies are relaxing. This will spur liberalization efforts such as those prescribed by the Global Commission on Drug Policy.
At the Summit of the Americas in April 2012, traditional US allies such as Colombia began to advocate a change in the way drug usage is fought. With the Global Commission on Drug Policy declaring the “war” on drugs a failure, there is growing disapproval of US-led efforts that increase violence. The alternative would instead be increased efforts at treatment and government regulation. The incongruency between domestic and federal policy regarding drugs creates space for Latin American nations to revise their own policies.
Many Latin American leaders are arguing that the U.S. decriminalizing marijuana creates a clear internal contradiction between its domestic policy and foreign policy. The vote that resulted in the legalization of marijuana in two states is seen as the first ever relaxation of U.S. drug policy. Internationally, the Latin American community is abuzz with the implications, including the seeming begrudging approval of the U.S. to allow them to follow the liberalization prescriptions of the Global Commission report. Uruguay has already passed legislation to have the government act as a monopoly in the production and sale of marijuana to adults, and the PRD party leader in Mexico proposed new legislation in Mexico. While the widespread constituent support for legalization in the U.S. is somewhat of an anomaly, it is generally understood that source countries do not typically have high usage rates.
Legalization would decrease drug-related violence by introducing government regulation and transparency into traditionally black markets. The legalization of marijuana in two US states will cut into Mexican cartel profits by $1.6 billion. By moving the substance out of the domain of illegal groups, it is moved into the arena of formalized business transactions – in which the product, quantity and price is standardized. Individuals will opt for legal transactions over illegal ones because of the decrease in risk (and often decrease in price). This is a much more targeted way of harming cartels. By regulating the illicit product, cartels no longer have a monopoly over its production. The high prices of drugs are a result of the perceived risk that goes into their production and trafficking. Government intervention in this market reduces prices and increases transparency, eliminating the need for a black market and directly impacting the profits of cartels by diverting them to the government.
Prohibition of drug use is part of an aged, expensive and inconsistent effort of the government to regulate morality, and it generates too many negative externalities in source countries. United States foreign policy will continue to reflect emphasis on decreasing supply because it is not directly affected by drug-related violence, but now Latin American nations will seemingly not support this since an internal contradiction between American state and foreign policy exists. Legalization serves as an indicator of a relaxation in U.S. drug policy that will likely spur discussion of legalization in order to decrease violence in source countries. The results of Uruguay’s efforts will likely impact the speed of this shift.
This fundamental difference in the approach to the war on drugs is currently shaping discourse. The divide is between the United States who advocates eliminating supply, and Latin American leaders that argue for addressing demand. But recent successes in Portugal inspire optimism and offer a model for decriminalization. The United States’ insistence upon the Merida Initiative and Plan Colombia with the funds to match ensured the success of its supply-side narrative. But now that Colorado and Washington have taken it upon themselves to defy this argument and overturn a federal policy, in conjunction with growing discontent amongst Latin American leaders and a successful example of full decriminalization — what happens now? This referendum on the failure of the war on drugs could serve as the catalyst for the widespread changes in the global war on drugs that source countries have been advocating for.
Photo credit: Flickr user breathelaina
This article originally appeared in the winter edition of PPR on March 11, 2013.