Demand, Responsibility, and the American Conscience

By Dan Black

For decades, drug policy wonks have argued over effective ways to combat contraband trade and the devastation it has brought to Latin American countries. Supply-side strategies seek to stem the endless cultivation of Andean coca or firebomb the makeshift drug labs. By most measures, these plans have failed. If an American plane eradicates a coca field with aerial sprayed chemicals, farmers will easily find new acreage elsewhere. The hearty crop needs little encouragement. This assumes, of course, an endless global demand for the drug.

Aerial coca spraying is mired in controversy. Although the process is difficult and costly, measured in both dollars and lives, coca spraying did eradicate or disperse the crop in the regions where it was enacted. But due to safety concerns, and perhaps also some political rallying, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recently halted the program. Since then, coca spraying has become a poison pill that no group wants to claim responsibility for. It is fodder for Colombians to complain about US policy and how the northern power tends to meddle in affairs far beyond its borders.

Cocaine took America by storm, and trapped it in a high from which it shows no signs of coming down. From Wall Street to South Beach, those with means fiend for the white powder, with little regard for consequence. Contrary other market offerings, Cocaine presents few visible flaws. Unlike heroin, there’s no strange inward trance or nasty hangover. Enterprising criminals like trans-oceanic drug trafficker George Jung, fresh out of a Boston jail, lined up the supply. The craze hit celebrities and athletes, like the Pittsburgh Steelers’ entire front line, who partied with coke and then brought home the Super Bowl two days later. Cocaine’s vise grip on the country is memorialized on a Time Magazine cover as “The All-American Drug.” But while Americans are the primary consumers, they are far from being its only stakeholders.

The War on Drugs has not been fought without attempts to curb stateside demand, they’ve just proven themselves unwieldy and often toothless. The United States rode a wild high in the sixties and seventies, but by the eighties, narcotics had reared its ugly head. The deaths of Lean Bias and Don Rogers, two star athletes, plastered cocaine overdose to the front pages of newspapers and magazines worldwide. Cocaine brought its users euphoria, that was well-understood, but Bias and Rogers demonstrated that cocaine could also kill.

Unlike other threats facing a nation’s security – and the drug war certainly threatens some states’ existence – the global community, including many leaders on this hemisphere, disagree on where to place the blame. Drug violence is at once everybody’s problem and nobody’s. Mexico is sometimes deemed entirely responsible for its problems, or it is considered a poor, helpless victim of American greed and delinquency. Unlike the War on Terror, the War on Drugs does not have a clear, consistent face. North Americans watch in awe as El Chapo, a modern day Al Capone, escapes from a Mexican prison, yet they fail to focus their attention on the trail of countless murders, extortions, and rapes that placed him there. Cocaine users continue to pay top dollar for their powder, diverting necessary funds earmarked for food, education, and child care, yet romanticize the lavish lives of Drug kingpins. This makes for an interesting blame game.

Political figures like Donald Trump frequently point a finger at Mexico, a major drug producer and conduit, for dangerous conditions along their northern border. Jingoist calls like Mr. Trump’s serve only to distract Americans from reckoning their own complicity in the conflict.

For decades, pleas have come from the southern hemisphere begging Americans to take responsibility for their role in the drug war. For as long as drug violence has characterized life in much of Mexico and Colombia, it has been understood, and even considered constant, that the American market presents endless demand. Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s former president, takes a particularly harsh stance, growing increasingly more raucous a critic as time further separates him from his regime.

“Either the United States and its society, its government and its congress decide to drastically reduce their consumption of drugs…or [if not],” he pleas, “at least have the moral responsibility to reduce the flow of money towards Mexico, which goes into the hands of criminals.”

What’s sobering though, is that Americans have tried to do this before. On October 14, 1982, President Ronald Reagan famously declared a war on drugs. Faced with an epidemic at home and growing violence in the hemisphere, he had no choice but to make counter narcotics a cornerstone of his platform. Pollsters in the eighties ranked drug abuse voters’ number one concern, surpassing even nuclear war. Reagan was not wrong to respond accordingly, but his biggest misstep came in the nature of his response. First Lady Nancy Reagan hit airwaves and schools with a simple message: “just say no;” no to using, selling, or trafficking. Organizationally, President Reagan created the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a now cabinet-level institution tasked with regulating illegal narcotics. Funding skyrocketed, with the budget for drug law enforcement reaching $2.5 billion in 1988, triple the number from 1981. But despite the enormous troubles stateside, there is little evidence to suggest that Americans were thinking about the international consequences of their drug habits. They were too busy mourning Len Bias to think of the Colombian and Mexican cartel violence their drug dollars were fueling. Moral blindness continues to this day. The deaths of Robin Williams and Phillip Seymour Hoffman commanded a monopoly on the media, the same media that seldom reports Latin American drug violence.

When it comes to the Mexican Drug War, Felipe Calderón speaks wisely and from experience. As a six-year president of the Republic, Calderón learned that both soft and heavy-handed approaches, no matter how well-funded or planned, can and will fail. Weak enforcement, Mexico has learned, creates drug-friendly havens, like the Mexican city of Culiacán. Alternatively, firm grips drive cartels to splinter and take up arms against each other, often at the expense of civilians. The Sinaloa Cartel’s turf war, which devastated northern Mexico, claimed 200 lives a month in 2007. A year later, the monthly death count rose to 500, many of them occurring just miles from the American border. So when Calderon criticizes a policy, his critiques carry weight.

Calderón has directed some of his disapproval at former president Ronald Reagan, whose demand-focused policies began admirably but failed to deliver results. In his mind, as long as money still flows into Mexico, any policies are effectively useless. After six years of Reagan’s anti-drug policies, Attorney General Edwin Meese conceded that “the gap between the amount of drugs seized and the amount imported and consumed [grew] annually.” Mathea Falco, a lawyer for International Narcotics Matters admits that Reagan’s record demonstrates that constant exhortations to “just say no to drugs” does not a plan make.

Given American missteps, Latin American leaders are justifiably disgruntled. Like his Mexican counterpart, President Santos has also expressed disapproval with the current flow of money, which indirectly finances leftist terror groups that plague his country. But unlike Calderón, Santos stills holds his office, which muffles his tone a bit. Nevertheless, the pair, as well as President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala, supported a report on drug policy written by the Organization of American States. From Brazil, former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso has urged a “paradigm shift,” which seeks to treat drug addiction as a vehicle for reducing demand. Unlike Calderón and Cardoso, Santos and Molina are unwilling to let drug violence mar their presidencies.

As Latin American leaders raise their voices and flex muscles they may not have had a decade ago, it will be harder for America’s massive drug consumption to avoid critique and policy response. The  American conscience must return and recognize our complicity in Latin American drug violence.


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