A Better Global Strategy


As a Global Commission on Drug Policy report explains, “The global war on drugs has failed.”

The report, like the many critiques before it, gives solid and well-cited reasoning as to why past models were intrinsically flawed, and provides “recommendations” for the international community moving forward. However, in evaluating the way the Commission structures its argument, what becomes clear is the international anti-drug agenda has suffered from too many unenforceable conventions put forth by multi-lateral parties, too many competing agendas in terms of political and operational leadership, an underrepresentation of commentary from countries exploited by drug trafficking organizations, and a flawed assumption that one blanket treaty will  simultaneously curb production, stifle trafficking and alleviate demand.

Moreover, the international community’s continued absence of action across parallel regions that support the drug trade has allowed drug production, trafficking and consumption to thrive. To solve the global drug problem, the global community needs to overhaul the current UN convention-based system and establish a formalized and actionable mission, preferably housed within one body with enforcement capabilities. This mission should focus on both regional and issue-specific trends with input from experts in everything from development to counterterrorism.

In considering strategies to adequately meet the challenges of the global drug problem, it is important to dismiss legalization as a viable solution. Blanket, or even partial, legalization, if it could even be achieved on a global scale, would not solve the larger global issue of transnational product trafficking nor the corruption, impunity, instability and violence that tend to accompany criminal enterprise. Cigarettes are a good example of a legal drug (nicotine) that continues to be the second most trafficked item after illegal narcotics.  Moreover, as it would seem highly unlikely that all illegal narcotics would find legal status, criminal groups will presumably continue to operate. Advocates for the legalization of marijuana who stand firm on the harmless nature of THC hesitate when it comes to applying the same reasoning to heroin or crack cocaine. Partial legalization in certain countries or of certain drugs means the demand for illegal products would continue elsewhere along with the ancillary violence and corruption.  Even if the war on drugs finally ends, the professional staff at a drug rehab center will continue serving the needs of drug abusers everywhere.

To use a word often employed by Mexican President Felipe Calderon, the global drug problem should be thought of as a “cancer.” While it is true Calderon typically uses the analogy to defend his administration’s current “war” against the Mexican cartels from critics of the resulting violence, the idea is appropriate for the global fight against drugs because cancer, as a disease, usually requires a multi-tiered treatment approach. Like cancer, combating the illegal drug trade requires aggressive action to fight the disease combined with fortifying treatments that allow the patient in question to recuperate from any necessary traumatic measures that, ideally, also strengthen the body to prevent relapse. Following the cancer model, resolving the global drug problem requires a comprehensive strategy. Going after cartels from an enforcement angle are not enough, not when there is a permissive domestic environment that allows criminal enterprise to thrive. Education and development need to be key players, so the small-scale producers or shipment collaborators have a better alternative than what is provided by the lucrative drug trade. Decriminalization of minor offenders, public health advocacy and harm reduction strategies are also critical but cannot exist without the muscle of enforcement to stop those for whom such measures are not a viable deterrent.

It has been 40 years since former U.S. President Richard Nixon declared drugs the “public enemy number one” and 50 years since the United Nations established the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to curtail drug production, trafficking and abuse through international cooperation. The reason the same challenges remain half a century later has a simple explanation: adequately responding to the problem requires a lot of work. Legalization or muddling through another UN convention would be like trying to treat the existing tumor with aspirin and a band-aid. To truly make inroads against the drug trade, we need to take a greater interest in the socio-economic instability of producer and transit countries, evaluate where harm reduction strategies provide a greater cost-benefit analysis than criminalization and restructure intelligence and enforcement operations to eliminate avenues where criminals continue to defy the system. All in all, a lot of work.

Photo Credt: Wikimedia Commons