You would think that the largest consumer of drugs in the world would focus and invest hugely in strategies to curb its domestic demand for illicit narcotics. This especially considering that its own Department of Justice has concluded that the use of drugs affects nearly all aspects of human lives: overburdened justice and healthcare systems, lost productivity, domestic violence and random acts of violence. No sir. The U.S. focuses instead on funneling vast resources to reduce the supply of drugs in other countries.
Fittingly, like a fall ritual, a group of Washington experts come together annually to determine the designation of nations considered by the U.S. to be ‘major drug producing or transit zones and those who failed demonstrably to make substantial efforts to stop the supply of illegal narcotics.’ Then invariably U.S. politicians use this information to shame and blame other countries for the U.S. drug problem. It reminds me of the story of Pontius Pilate who when he saw trouble approaching, took some water and washed his hands saying, “I am innocent … it is your responsibility!”
This year Colombia, the staunchest U.S. ally in Latin America, was threatened by President Trump to be decertified as a partner in the drug war. True, cocaine production in Colombia, the major provider of cocaine available in the U.S. has increased significantly. On the other hand, United Nations reports that cocaine use and availability is on the rise in the U.S.. Maybe even scarier according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health is that from 2013 to 2016 a whopping 61 percent more young Americans admitted to trying cocaine. No wonder Colombia, the country that has suffered more than any other country at the hands of narcotics traffickers, did not take this news well.
To blame the U.S. drug problem on the supply of drugs without addressing the U.S. demand for drugs stands in the way of a constructive dialogue about this epidemic. Neither does this backward approach consider the wounds that producing and transit counties inflict on their societies. I’m from Curaçao (an island in the Caribbean) and believe me, I have seen the almost unimaginable violence and deep scars courtesy of drug transportation to the users in the North. What we have is a classical case of Increased demand being met by increased supply.
While neglecting investments in strategies that could help reduce drugs demand, the U.S. singular focus has been on supply reduction. This strategy has failed and will continue to fail because these supply containment policies tend to raise the margin between retail and producer prices, meaning sky high profits. And as we have seen, eliminating kingpins does not quell the drug trade. It does however guarantee a new breed of kingpins.
The U.S. supply-side war on drugs is not only hypocritical, but ceaseless and senseless. Assuming we are not yet ready to start talking about a bold rethink on drugs like decriminalization or (partial) legislation -a discussion whose time has come- the best bet is to invest in education and treatment programs.
Alex Rosaria was field officer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Nicaragua from 1995-1998.