Fri, 12 Sep 2003 - The Economist (UK)
Book Review: Bad Neighbour Policy
Washington's Futile War On Drugs In Latin America
by Ted Galen Carpenter
MORE than 30 years ago, President Richard Nixon declared war on the use of illegal drugs in the United States, and their supply from abroad, especially from Latin America. Over the intervening decades that war has become an increasingly serious and costly one, as Ted Galen Carpenter succinctly shows in a timely book. At home, Americans have seen their civil liberties eroded in its name, while the federal government now spends some $11.7 billion a year fighting drugs. Abroad, the drug warriors have bullied and bribed Latin American governments into sullen co-operation. Under Plan Colombia, the Americans are now deeply involved in that country's internal conflicts, spraying coca fields and training army battalions. And yet the flow of drugs reaching the United States is undiminished. While casual cocaine use has declined, heroin consumption has increased.
This adds up to a "colossal failure", argues Mr Carpenter, who works at the Cato Institute, a libertarian group in Washington, DC. That failure is inevitable, in his view. As long as drugs are demanded, the only effect of making them illegal is to drive up their price, providing an unbeatable economic incentive for their production. It is time for the United States to abandon its "experiment with drug prohibition" which began with the Harrison Act of 1914.
Mr. Carpenter's conclusion is one that many students of the drug war, including this newspaper, have long endorsed. The problem is that most Americans do not. Several European countries, and Canada, have recently shifted away from a penal approach to drugs, and towards one of decriminalisation and "harm reduction". But none has contemplated legalising cocaine, the use of which is soaring in Europe. Beyond a timid movement to allow the medical use of marijuana, America remains tightly wedded to prohibition.
Mr Carpenter is right, too, that the Latin American countries which are the source of drugs, or through which they are trafficked, pay a disproportionate share of the costs of failed prohibition. More's the pity, then, that he shows no sign of having visited any of them in researching his book -- or even of setting foot outside his office in Washington.
This gives his book some disfiguring weaknesses. The central one is that his review of three decades of American policy fails to distinguish sufficiently between the cost to Latin America of the drug war, on the one hand, and of the illegal drug industry itself on the other. The drug war has indeed inflicted obvious damage; America's support for Peru's disgraced spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, is one unedifying example.
But the drug industry has itself wreaked havoc in the Andean countries. That is because prohibition makes drug production highly lucrative. This gives the drug industry enormous economic and military power, which it exercises through corruption and violence to undermine already weak democratic states. Colombia's guerrillas, for example, would almost certainly have made peace at least a decade ago had drug money not given them and their paramilitary opponents a new, extended, lease of life. As a result, Colombia's governments have had little choice but to seek American military aid -- and have every right to it as long as American (and European) drug consumers are financing the assault on democracy, however unwittingly.
In other words, unless and until drugs are legalised, Latin American governments have no choice but to try and tackle the monster engendered by prohibition. But such policy dilemmas are too subtle for Mr. Carpenter's polemic. He leaves ungrasped, too, the many nettles that spring from legalisation, ranging from who might produce the drugs to whether consumption could be restrained. In a different way, he is as out of touch with reality as are the drug warriors. That is a shame, for his main argument is an intelligent one.
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