Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

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

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U.S. Drug Policy’s Third Way: A Conversation with Gil Kerlikowske

by Shannon K. O'Neil
October 5, 2012

U.S. National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske addresses the media during an anti-drug addiction meeting in Mexico City (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske addresses the media during an anti-drug addiction meeting in Mexico City (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).


Over the past year, public frustration in Latin America has been mounting toward the international drug control regime. Latin American leaders brought the drug policy debate to the forefront at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena last April, where the thirty-four heads of state agreed to review and discuss all possible approaches (a process that is now underway). This week at the United Nations General Assembly, Guatemala, Colombia, and Mexico’s governments issued a joint declaration, outlining their recommendations for global drug policy and specifically asking the United Nations to “exercise its leadership and conduct deep reflection to analyze all available options.”

To explain where the Obama administration drug policy stands, Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (aka the U.S. drug czar), spoke yesterday here at the Council on Foreign Relations. Kerlikowske began his remarks by pointing out that the most vocal participants in drug policy often come from the extremes: drug warriors and those in favor of full legalization. In between these two poles, Kerlikowske reasoned that space exists for a “third way,” one that conceives of drug use as a health problem, even as it supports law enforcement initiatives. The Obama administration’s policy is based in this complicated middle area, combining a strong focus on demand side prevention and rehabilitation with supply side eradication and interdiction.

Skeptics of this “new approach” look not just at the rhetoric but also at the resources. In 2011 prevention and treatment combined represented roughly 40 percent of the final budget for the national drug control strategy—sizable, but still less than half the total (and a lower percentage than at least in some periods of the previous Bush administration). Judging from the recent efforts of Latin America’s leaders, from Kerlikowske’s presentation, and from the CFR audience’s questions, it is clear that most see a need for a change in policy direction. It is also clear that a “third way” that satisfies the various national and international partners has yet to be put in place.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Pancho

    Fourth way: Buy it. All of it. Transfer some to pharmaceutical companies for prescription drug production, burn the rest.

  • Posted by Gart Valenc

    It’s totally unacceptable for Mr Kerlikowske to continue using his high position to mislead and misinform the public so blatantly:

    1. It is all right for a sorcerer to pretend he can make an object disappear by uttering some “magic” words. Another thing is for Mr. Kerlikowske to say that the War on Drugs no longer exists because, well, because he has uttered the magic words: third way—by the way, paradigm shift is the phrase used by the Latin American Commission on Drugs in its 2009 report and its use here is highly misleading.

    2. According to the UN, worldwide consumption of drugs increased across the board between 1998 and 2008: opiates 34.5%, cocaine 27% and marihuana 8.5%.

    3. According to Alejandro Hope, a highly regarded Mexican security analyst and a “sceptic” of legalisation: «…no one has produced a credible estimate about extortion [revenues]. My intuition is that non-drug revenues are still a fraction of drug exports, but it’s just an educated guess.»

    4. As for using Colombia as a positive example of US War on Drugs policies, most Colombian analysts will say that it has been anything but a success. See for instance:

    Gart Valenc
    Twitter: @gartvalenc

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