Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Demand Side Policies in the U.S. War on Drugs

by Shannon K. O'Neil
September 6, 2011

Passengers on a bus pass a vehicle painted with a slogan during an anti-drugs campaign to mark International Anti-Drug Day in Jakarta (Dadang Tri/Courtesy Reuters).

Passengers on a bus pass a vehicle painted with a slogan during an anti-drugs campaign to mark International Anti-Drug Day in Jakarta (Dadang Tri/Courtesy Reuters).

The “drug war” strategy of the last four decades revolves primarily around  supply side measures. Whether  eradication, interdiction, or arrests, it fixates on stopping the seemingly endless flow of drugs and cash across U.S. borders . But there is obviously another side to the equation – U.S. demand. The United States is the largest consumer of drugs across the globe (though there are signs that the cocaine and marijuana markets in Europe and the developing world are catching up) with 1 in every 7 Americans having tried an illegal substance. Marijuana accounts for the vast majority of that consumption, followed by prescription drugs and cocaine.

Three basic strategies underlie the traditional approach to dealing with drug abuse at home: prevention, treatment and enforcement. Prevention programs seek to stop substance abuse by educating primarily schoolchildren on the dangers of narcotics. Even with their memorable slogans (such as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign or Drug Abuse Resistance Education’s “D.A.R.E. to resist drugs and violence”) the results have been  disappointing. A number of studies show these efforts – costing millions of dollars – may slightly slow marijuana experimentation among teens.

Treatment programs, particularly when focused on rehab for heavy drug users, are by far the most cost effective U.S. policy. For every million dollars spent, these programs reduce lifetime cocaine consumption by 100 grams.This may not seem like a lot, but it is more than three times as effective as preventive programs and punitive measures. Investing in treatment also yields impressive returns in terms of public safety, as every dollar spent on substance abuse rehabilitation reduces  the costs of associated crime by an estimated seven dollars. Still, soaring dropout rates – even within mandatory programs — question the long-term benefits of formal treatment for the relatively few drug addicts who choose to participate.

A final major element of demand side in the United States has been enforcement, namely incarceration of those selling and using drugs. From 1972-2002, the number of drug offenders behind bars increased twelve-fold (accounting for about half of the total growth of the federal prison population). This has hit African American communities the hardest, as 1 in every 3 black males goes to prison at some point in his life (1 in 15 black adults are currently behind bars). This is at least in part because the punishments for crack are harsher than those for powder cocaine, leading to longer sentences for black vs. white offenders. This style of stepped up enforcement doesn’t seem to have changed the fundamental drug markets, at least not for the better. Cocaine and heroin prices have hit all-time lows, indicating greater availability, while purity has increased by more than half in recent years. Methamphetamine rose from near obscurity in the early nineties to become the drug of choice for roughly 1.5 million Americans today.

Latin American officials such as presidents Felipe Calderon of Mexico and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia are increasingly calling on the United States to do more to reduce consumption, and a recent report co-authored by former President of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso urged a “paradigm shift” in global drug policy to treat “drug addiction as a health issue, reducing drug demand through educational initiatives and legally regulating rather than criminalizing cannabis.” So what should the U.S. government do?

Some experts favor legalizing narcotics, putting an end to drug war once and for all. These advocates maintain that making drugs commercially available will replace illicit markets with formal ones, and thus eliminate the violence of the illegal drug trade. Researchers have found that legalizing marijuana would not necessarily lead to a rise in substance abuse (since those that want to get high today can, at least in many states, do it quite easily), and could slash one fifth of Mexican cartels’ profits. Ending the prohibition on harder drugs may not have the same effect, as legalization could prompt more consumption of cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine (because current enforcement against these drugs is more effective than for marijuana). To appreciate the potential costs of a surge in use, one need only to look at the double-edged consequences of ending the prohibition against alcohol. While the likes of Al Capone are history, Americans today are four times more likely to abuse alcohol than all illicit drugs combined. Alcohol-abusers are also more prone to break the law, as more than half of the current prison population committed their crimes drunk.

Other experts (especially those at RAND corp.) suggest we focus our anti-drug resources on enforcement that prioritizes harm reduction. The idea here is not to lock people up indiscriminately, but to go after the most violent drug traffickers and retail dealers. While this may not alter the availability and price of drugs (current policies haven’t done this either), it would they suggest reduce the effects on the larger community and population – whether here in the United States or in places such as Mexico.

For the past three decades Washington has spent the bulk (an average of two thirds) of anti-drug resources on supply side solutions. Even as the U.S. drug control budget expanded by more than 50 percent in recent years, expenditures for demand side policies remained stagnant, growing less than one percent per year over the past decade. Realizing that there is no easy solution on either side of the border, it is time to rethink these strategies, keeping in mind the brief successes and unfortunate failures of the last four decades.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Jillian Galloway

    Marijuana is *significantly* less addictive than alcohol and *doesn’t* cause violence or loss of control like alcohol does. For these reasons legalized marijuana will *not* cause the same problems that legalized alcohol has.

    Four decades of prohibition has taught us that we can NOT stop people using marijuana in the U.S. We can however stop people using *cartel* marijuana by allowing our supermarkets to sell legally-grown marijuana to adults at a price too low for the drug dealers and cartels to match.

    Parents, you have to decide if you want drug dealers selling marijuana to kids or supermarkets selling marijuana to adults.

  • Posted by Steve Sturgill

    I cannot muster any optimism regarding a re-think of policy in this country. Any such re-think will be dominated by special constituencies protecting their substantial economic and power interests. It’s all about money and power, little concerned with what’s good for anyone or any country.

    This is a deep corruption whose enormous economic toll is only part of the damage we’re doing around the world and at home.
    Sometimes I feel ashamed for my country.

    What Jillian Galloway wrote, for what it’s worth.

  • Posted by denbee

    Regardless of every study ever made on marijuana we should return marijuana to legal status for only one reason. This:

    “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
    ~ Harry Anslinger,
    U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics,
    testifying to Congress on why marijuana should be made illegal
    (Marijuana Tax Act, signed Aug. 2, 1937; effective Oct. 1, 1937.)

    It was based on “truths” like this that marijuana was made illegal back in 1937. Are we idiots? Is this how we make laws? Is this the stuff our laws are based on? I would think we should sue congress to nullify prohibition based on racial testimony like Mr. Anslinger’s. When a mistake is reconized shouldn’t we correct it?
    Our do we continue to criminalize almost a million of our sons and daughters every year because of what Mr. Anslinger’s racial imagination conjured up? Let’s do the right thing and end Prohibition now.

  • Posted by David

    The U.S. fosters a consumer market for drug consumption. Cocaine, heroin, marijuana, extacy, and basically all legal drugs prescribed by doctors. There is an element that in this society, drugs are accepted, either legally or illegally. I’m referring to how people behave, for example, when in pain or suffer any symptom. It is quite accepted and prevalent in this society to think “what should I take for this symptom or for that pain?”.

    So its not just a question of legalizing a product or not. Or eliminating borders for easy access. Its educating a society to rethink about what the product they are consuming does, for instance to producing economies or countries.

    In the case of Mexico and the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras), which supplies and traffics at least 50% of the global production of cocaine to the main consumption markets that are the U.S. and Canada. These countries are suffering hundreds of thousands of deaths annually from direct events such as killings between gangs, Narcos and transnational criminal organizations. Police officers and innocent citizens are caught in this fight, whom are not prepared in any way to compete against their assault rifles, trained soldiers, and bullet-proof SUVs and trucks. For various reasons, not only a cause of drug trafficking, these countries are suffering democratic and government instability. The Northern Triangle countries are on the brink of becoming Narco controlled States.

    But to not make it long, the main idea here is that there needs to be a change in consciousness and awareness about the negative effects that drug consumption (and illegal weapons trafficking) has on other countries. ITS NOT ONLY ABOUT THE U.S. Somewhat in the same manner that many people would not buy a “blood diamond” or coffee cultivated using child labor or exploitation. Although I do recognize that many people consuming these illegal drugs might not care about what these products do to other countries. The idea here is to begin to consider the cocaine/marijuana “war” using another mindset. A mindset that will consider, among other things, how our liberal and egocentric way of viewing things affects the safety and well being of people in other countries.

  • Posted by Justin Case

    Mr Anslinger was America’s own Hitler. The man was a bigot who sent thousands of good, honest men and women to prison. He is responsible for the destruction of millions of American families and the loss of personal liberty not to mention the loss of life due to his personal war on humanity should disgust each human being today and in the future.

    I would like to see Mr. Anslinger’s family condemn his actions publicly and I would like to see each of our law makers condemn his policies openly. There is no way that a wrong can ever be righted unless we first are willing to agree amongst each other and in front of each other that the law has been made in error and that it’s only purpose was to punish people based solely because of their race.

    To stop the violence and to stop the lies we must first stop the law and those who enforce it. Anslinger may have been the embodiment of evil but anyone who knowingly enforces these drug law today is the real criminal.

  • Posted by Steve

    What are you saying David? What do you propose for the long, long interval between now and when people begin equating drugs with blood diamonds? More of the same?

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required