Saturday, March 9, 2013

PF April 2013 Drug Policy - Background

Resolved: The continuation of current U.S. anti-drug policies in Latin America will do more harm than good

For part one of this analysis, click here.


While the history of anti-drug policies in the US go back to the early 1900's there is no need to review the timeline of the various US initiatives to limit the import of "illegal" drugs into the US.  The issue has long been one of supply and demand.  Rather I should say demand and supply because the demand for drugs drives the efforts to supply them and as long as there are people who demand something, there will be those willing to try to supply the demand.  However, some may argue it is a not just a problem of supply and demand, because the prevalence, or easy access to drugs constitutes a threat because it makes it easy for those who may be prone to such things, to "discover" drugs.  For sure, if drugs are difficult to obtain, they would likely be much more expensive and so there would be less chance of obtaining the drugs.  The so-called 'War on Drugs' began in the early 1970's, really after the formation of the Drug Enforcement Administration, a division of the US Justice Department and became a sort of national paramilitary force aimed at enforcing the Controlled Substances Act and working to reduce drug smuggling across the international borders of the US as well as state borders within the US.  The DEA began to work with similar agencies in foreign countries to find and eradicate the source of illegal drugs and arrest the individuals in the so-called drug cartels responsible for supply.  In the 1980s, the federal government authorized the use of CIA and US military units to assist in the War on Drugs.  Millions of dollars were handed over to foreign governments to establish and equip their drug eradication efforts.

Much of the anti-drug operations were being conducted in Mexico, Columbia, Peru, and other Latin American countries as well as Asia and Africa.  Of course, as we look at this topic of debate we need only concentrate on the policies relative to Latin America.  The development of the drug trade in Latin America began with farmers in certain regions in which the plants which yield drugs thrive, growing and cultivating the plants.  The people in these regions have historically been poor and it was said that a farmer can make more money growing marijuana or cocoa than he could growing corn.  So there was a financial motive to cultivate these kinds of crops.  Groups organized and expanded to buy the crops and set up the various operations required to process the drugs and smuggle them to the US and Europe.  Early anti-drug policies attempted to encourage farmers to convert their fields to normal crops, such as corn and were paid subsidies to do so.  Also, US agencies in cooperation with agents of the host country would raid these farms, uproot and burn the marijuana or cocoa crops.  Such actions would devastate the livelihoods of the farmers which served to foster anti-American sentiments among the citizens of these areas.  Meanwhile, enriched by the flourishing drug consumption market, the various organizations which manufactured and supplied the drugs became increasingly well organized, heavily armed, and influential in the regions in which they operated, often using murder, torture, and terrorism to maintain their regional dominance of the trade.  They eventually organized themselves into cartels.  A cartel is a cooperative group of members which work together to fix prices, establish manufacturing operations and setup distribution networks.  The "Drug Cartels" of Mexico and Colombia are well-organized, rich, very large and dangerous, willing to do whatever it takes to maintain their operations.
Cartel - a consortium of independent organizations formed to limit competition by controlling the production and distribution of a product or service
Drug cartel - an illicit cartel formed to control the production and distribution of narcotic drugs; "drug cartels sometimes finance terrorist organizations"

The Colombian-based cartels supplied most of the cocaine to the world.  The two largest organizations, the Medellin and Cali cartels were targeted by DEA and CIA which organized efforts to cut off their trade routes through the Caribbean Sea.  This forced them work with Mexican organizations to move cocaine through Mexico across the southern border of the US.  The Mexican groups grew in power and wealth as a result.  The ongoing drug war in Columbia, which at times was conducted with full military strikes, eventually led to the collapse of the major Colombian cartels.  The Colombian supply chain broke up into smaller, less organized groups while the Mexican groups took over the distribution operations.  Today the major drug cartels are all based in Mexico including the Sinaloa, Tijuana, Juarez, and Los Zetas among the largest and most active.

In early 2000s, the Mexican government objected to the heavy-handed and often unilateral tactics being taken the US in Mexico.  The US and Mexican authorities negotiated and developed a cooperation plan known as the Mérida Initiative.  The main components of the plan supplied funds to train and equip Mexican police and troops to control trafficking.  The initial funding, set to expire in 2010 has been extended with $1.9 billion earmarked for 2012.  Mérida has its critics and is seen as the US sponsorship of extremist police tactics including torture.


The federal government created the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 1982, as the central executive organization for establishing and overseeing the US policies aimed at eliminating illegal drug use in the US as well as the associated trafficking, crimes and negative economic impacts.
 ONDCP Pamphlet (2009):
A key role of ONDCP is to evaluate and coordinate the international and domestic anti-drug efforts of other Federal agencies and to ensure such efforts sustain and complement State and local anti-drug activities.The Director advises the President regarding changes in the organization, management, budgeting, and personnel of Federal agencies that affect the Nation’s anti-drug efforts...The primary purpose of ONDCP is to establish policies, priorities, and objectives for the Nation’s drug-control program. Using an approach that is flexible and responsive to current trends, the agency works to curb the use, manufacture, and trafficking of illicit drugs, reduce drug related crime and violence, and minimize the health consequences of drug use. To achieve these goals, the ONDCP Director is charged with producing, on behalf of the President, the National Drug Control Strategy. The document directs the Nation’s anti-drug efforts and establishes a program, a budget, and guidance for cooperation among Federal, State, and local partners.

The head of the office is known in the press as the nation's Drug Czar.  The first was William Bennett and the current director is Gil Kerlikowske, appointed by President Obama in 2009.

US drug policy is complex and multi-faceted. The ONDCP is responsible for establishing those policies and coordinating some 34 other agencies in carrying out the US anti-drug policies.

The Status Quo

Illegal drug use in the US is a problem which has economic impacts on the US.
 Kilmer et al (2012):
More than 40 million Americans use cocaine, heroin, marijuana, methamphetamine, hallucinogens, or prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes each year, with roughly half consuming only marijuana. In the last five years, marijuana use—particularly daily use—has increased, and cocaine use has declined. As homicides associated with flagrant street markets for crack have declined, there has been a sharp rise in deaths associated with prescription drugs. A more recent policy challenge involves new substances, often referred to as designer drugs or “legal highs,” because they are—at least initially—not covered by existing prohibitions...The most recent estimate puts the economic cost of illegal drug use under current policies in the United States at $193 billion in 2007 (National Drug Intelligence Center, 2011).3 Costs were classified into three categories: crime ($61 billion), health ($11 billion), and productivity ($120 billion). The latter includes missed work and “presenteeism” (being less productive while on the job), as well as wages lost due to incarceration and homicide. These costs do include the nonmedical use of prescription drugs and are not broken down by specific drug.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the federal government has a goal to reduce illicit drug use by 15% in 2013.  The policies, as we shall soon see, are comprised of domestic and foreign components.  In order to achieve this goal, the US administration has asked for $25.6 billion dollars.

ONDCP (2012):
For 2 years this principle has guided the Administration’s efforts – and we will continue to pursue a balanced approach that brings all sectors of society together in a national effort to improve public health and public safety. The requested Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 National Drug Control Budget demonstrates commitment to these goals, requesting $25.6 billion to reduce drug use and its consequences in the United States. This represents an increase of $415.3 million (1.6%) over the FY 2012 enacted level of $25.2 billion.

Of that money a full $3.7 billion is earmarked for interdiction, whereby, according to the ONDCP: "The Departments of Homeland Security and Defense perform activities designed to interrupt the trafficking of illicit drugs into the United States by targeting the transportation link;"

Approaching the Policies

According to the ONDCP, the major strategies of the US anti-drug policies are the following (ONDCP 2013):
  • preventing illicit drug use and addiction before their onset;
  • bringing more Americans in need of treatment into contact with the appropriate level of care;
  • protecting public safety while also ensuring that drug‐involved offenders have the opportunity to end their drug use and rebuild their lives;
  • countering drug production and trafficking within the United States;
  • implementing new strategies to secure our borders against illicit drug flows;
  • working with our international partners to reduce drug production and trafficking and strengthen rule of law, democratic institutions, transparency in government, alternative livelihoods, and respect for human rights around the world.

The resolution we will debate specifies US anti-drug policies in Latin America. One may infer from this we need not focus on the myriad of policies aimed toward managing the domestic problems of US drug consumption, including the internal trafficking, crimes, health issues, and economic impacts except where those policies have direct and clear links to Latin America.  So it is a little vague.  For example, let us assume the domestic anti-drug program succeeds and by some incredible circumstance, all US illicit drug demand ceases.  Then perhaps the economic impact on Latin American may be significant and so we can cite the domestic policy has a direct impact upon Latin America.  When the resolution says "will do more harm than good" we must decide, does it mean "more harm than good" in Latin America or the US or should we just look at relative harms regardless of where they impact?  On the other hand, if one makes the claim US anti-drug policy resulted in the economic collapse of a region of South America, if there is no direct impact to the US do we consider it in our evaluation of harms versus good?  My interpretation of the resolution is predicated on my prior experience which tends to think we must look at the impact of our policies on the people and governments of Latin America and how those impacts eventually reflect upon and ultimately affect our standing in the world.  Therefore, much of the policy analysis I will present will be directed along those lines.

A primary goal of the US is to reduce drug trafficking across the US border.  The policies to accomplish this include:
  1. Cooperation with international partners for intelligence sharing.  The US anti-drug forces (DEA, DoD, DHLS, etc) will work with their counterparts in other countries to collect and analyze intelligence data related to the drug trafficking effort.
  2. Secure the Border and Ports of Entry.  The US will upgrade and employ state of the art detection technology to identify trafficking suspects and detect contraband in shipments.
  3. US Military interdiction.  The US will continue to use military air power and troops to support its drug interdiction efforts.  This also includes the providing military equipment and training to counterparts in other governments.
  4. Increase international criminal investigations.  The US will directly and indirectly engage in criminal investigations in cooperation with foreign governments to identify, investigate and prosecute drug traffickers.  This also includes targeting corrupt government officials.
  5. Stop the money trail.  The US will increase interdiction efforts to stem the flow of cash which drives the underground economy.  This includes sanctioning those organizations and businesses suspected of cooperating with money laundering and exchanges.
  6. Control the flow of illegal weapons.  The US will increase intelligence and investigation activities to control the flow of weapons used in smuggling and trafficking operations.
  7. High-tech surveillance.  The US will utilize high-technology monitoring and surveillance equipment, including sensors and satellites to detect trafficking movements, crops, and facilities.  This includes state-of-the-art data sharing and communications technologies.

Obviously the US intends to interact directly with key government in the region.  While officially we may assume this involves mutual cooperation to achieve common goals, one would be naive not to think it may also involve various kinds of coercive pressure exerted on these governments.

Click here to see the Pro Position


The National Drug Control Budget: FY 2013 Funding Highlights, Office of National Drug Control Policy
(ONDCP) February 2012

Council On Foreign Relations, Mexico's Drug War
Aimee Rawlins, January 11, 2013

The U.S. Drug Policy Landscape,Insights and Opportunities for Improving the View
Published by the Rand Corp, 2012
by Beau Kilmer, Jonathan P. Caulkins, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, Peter H. Reuter

William Dean, et al, September 2012

Office of National Drug Control Policy, Executive Office of the President
2009 pamphlet

NATIONAL DRUG CONTROL STRATEGY, Performance Reporting System Report

National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy
Office of National Drug Control Policy
June 2009

ONDCP, 2012

Latin America and the Caribbean: Illicit Drug Trafficking and U.S. Counterdrug Programs
Congressional Research Service
Clare Ribando Seelke, et al, 2012

U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative and Beyond
Congressional Research Service
Clare Ribando Seelke, et al, 2013


  1. thanks so much. this is so useful and well thought-out. i literally can't thank you enough! :)


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