In late August 2012, U.S. Federal, state, and local anti-drug agencies launched a two-month effort called Operation Mountain Sweep that targeted large illegal marijuana cultivations on public land in seven Western states: Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. To demonstrate resolve and publicize the “pot on public lands” issue, White House drug policy chief Gil Kerlikowske and other officials visited a clandestine cultivation site in El Dorado National Forest in California. U.S. officials contended that Mountain Sweep resulted in the eradication of almost 700,000 marijuana plants across the seven states with an estimated street value of almost $1.5 billion.
Marijuana cultivation on public lands, especially in the American West, has grown immensely in recent years, so the more aggressive response from anti-drug elements came as no surprise. Concerns about the environmental impact of cannabis cultivation on delicate ecosystems served as another important catalyst behind the targets. Growers often destroy mature trees to allow greater sunlight into the site and divert streams from natural flows to irrigate the plants. The 2012 Mountain Sweep collected enormous amounts of trash, irrigation pipes, and loads of fertilizer and pesticides. In short, this growing phenomenon is not “Smokey Bear” sprouting a few plants in a national park; these are sophisticated “corporate”-style marijuana entities.
Cultivation-driven environmental destruction in the United States is eerily similar to what happens in cocaine “source” countries like Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru, where virgin rainforest is slashed to make way for coca plantings. And as in those countries, the “balloon effect” is also in evidence. Push hard in one area, and the problem soon pops up somewhere else. Pressure from U.S. domestic eradication efforts has forced growers to abandon large outdoor marijuana plantings in favor of easier-to-disguise and much harder to interdict indoor cultivation. In 2009, U.S. agencies eradicated ten million outdoor cannabis plants but also more than 400,000 indoor plants. Interestingly, the United States and Mexico are two of the largest marijuana producers in the Americas; Mexico supplies about half of all the cannabis consumed in the United States with much of the other portion coming from domestic production.
Kerlikowske’s office singled out Operation Mountain Sweep in its annual National Drug Control Strategy as an example of a successful step in the decades-long drug fight, and a valid case can be made that public agencies should indeed go after large illegal plantings in public forests. Ironically, however, Mountain Sweep’s aggressive campaign concluded only weeks before Washington and Colorado citizens voted in decidedly dovish drug war fashion to legalize marijuana. That turns out to be only one of two ironies: Not only does aggressive enforcement contrast sharply with the permissive steps taken in two American states, those permissive steps—concerning which the Obama Administration has sent decidedly mixed signals—in turn contrast sharply with the more punitive drug war the U.S. government continues to wage abroad, especially in Latin America. Even more noteworthy, perhaps, many of our Latin American governmental partners have abandoned their formerly mixed attitudes toward U.S. policy and have become more hawkish than ever.
Full disclosure: My most recent experience working on these issues inside government was a two-year stint (2009–11) in the Obama Administration, first as principal director for the Western Hemisphere at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and then as a national security aide at the White House. In these episodes as well as others, I saw the policymaking beast that is the war on drugs in all of its exorbitantly expensive and morally and strategically questionable elements up close and personal. Yet, as we will see, there are also very persuasive arguments and evidence in favor of the drug war. But untangling all of this would require us to have a sense of exactly what the war on drugs entails—something easier said than done.
All this shifting around of attitudes domestically and south of the border calls for fresh policy analysis. It has not been forthcoming—at least not in the U.S. government. Instead, the disconnect between what the United States is doing at home and what it does abroad—much of which hasn’t changed significantly over the past thirty to fifty years—is not even mentioned in the recent U.S. national strategy. The bizarre reality of today’s drug war (even if the U.S. government no longer uses the original Nixonian terminology) is that European tourists are visiting Denver to get stoned before they take ski vacations or hike in the Rockies. This doesn’t sit so well with our Latin American drug war allies, many of whom now exhibit a rock-hard faith in the aims of the policy, since they have had much time to take stock of the damage that drug abuse has wreaked on their societies.
I doubt, for example, that Latin American officials were amused by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s trip to Colorado to report on the pot legalization issue. “I figured”, wrote Dowd, that “if I was reporting on the social revolution rocking Colorado . . . the giddy culmination of pot Prohibition, I should try a taste of legal, edible pot from a local shop.” Dowd’s perfectly legal Hunter S. Thompson-esque pot travel diaries came at the same time that law enforcement and land authorities continue to take the fight to the illegal pot growers, often with images of burn piles of eradicated plants, meant to suggest that the scourge is being beaten back despite legalization—admittedly a hard argument to make. Maybe Dowd could tag along with a Mountain Sweep-style SWAT raid to inform her on-the-ground reporting as well. Even better, maybe she should head south of the border to see how it all feels down there.
President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs almost a half century ago. Today, despite the billions of dollars spent on prevention, treatment, law enforcement, and interdiction, almost 23 million Americans (and 120 million to 225 million globally) between the ages of 12 and 65 are illicit drug users, including 2.5 million youth. Roughly three-quarters of these Americans are using marijuana; most of those taking other illicit drugs used pot as their gateway to harder substances. Interestingly, though, while the White House’s 2013 strategy described Mountain Sweep’s eradication bounty, it did not mention that marijuana usage in Americans over 12 has increased steadily in recent years, from 5.8 percent in 2008 to 7.3 percent in 2012, and that nationwide drug use has been steadily ticking up by roughly 15 percent over the past decade to about 24 million Americans, or 9 percent of the population.
Many, perhaps most, of these users have needed treatment for addiction, but fewer than one million actually received any treatment, a phenomenon researchers call the “treatment gap.” In addition, American adolescents’ use of marijuana has been increasing since the late 1990s at the same time that “perceived risk” about the drug is dropping, and that is despite the emergence of synthetic forms of marijuana and the growing potency of the commercial product over time. (As marijuana use has increased, it is worth noting that the number of Americans using heroin has increased 80 percent over this same period, to roughly 670,000 users. The connection between the two phenomena is controversial and certainly not simple to discern, but it is also not non-existent.)
There is much in the Obama Administration’s announced strategy that suggests it is open to novel ways of combatting the incalculable toll that illicit drug consumption takes on American communities and families. The published version of the strategy reminds us of the sobering consequences linked to drug use, such as the “vicious cycle” of substance abuse and unemployment that can be almost impossible to break without treatment and job counseling. Cocaine users, to pick one example, are roughly one-third less likely to be employed than non-users. Especially salient in the era of the Great Unraveling, workers who lost their jobs between the first and second employment surveys were nine times more likely to develop a substance use disorder compared to workers who did not lose their jobs. In a 2011 survey of arrestees conducted in ten metropolitan areas, more than half of the adult males arrested for crimes—misdemeanors and felonies—tested positive for at least one drug. Clearly, the causal arrows point both ways: Drug use diminishes readiness and ability to work, and loss of work enhances the proclivity to turn to drugs.
The White House strategy repeatedly contends that it represents a third way, and that its 21st-century approach rejects the opposing extremes of “legalization as a silver bullet” and “law enforcement, ‘war on drugs’ only” mentalities. And there is much in the report that suggests the Administration really does believe that evidence-based and sometimes even seemingly “soft” approaches are necessary. For example, it acknowledges that placing more non-violent substance abusers on “community supervision” as opposed to more punitive measures is gaining acceptance among criminal justice researchers and practitioners. It also contends that, while law enforcement is a necessary component, “we cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem.”
The strategy builds upon an earlier, much-discussed drug policy document that the Administration released at an international conference on drugs hosted by the Swedish government in 2012. According to the Administration, this paper represented a breakthrough in the American approach to drug control in that it emphasized the importance of seeing drug addiction as a “chronic disease of the brain”, and that drug policies should be “balanced, compassionate, and humane.” Popular as this idea has become, equating addiction with disease remains problematic.
Would-be breakthroughs aside, in an oblique stab at the vociferous and well-funded proponents of legalization, the Administration also contended that Sweden might be a good spot for unveiling the new approach, given the country’s “experience with drug liberalization” more than fifty years ago. This liberalization entailed a Swedish government social experiment in Stockholm in which it allowed legal prescriptions for addicts of otherwise illicit drugs under government and medical supervision—kind of a methadone program writ large. As the White House (perhaps conveniently) tells it, participants diverted the drugs into illicit markets, and the program was shut down in 1967. This is what led, the U.S. report concludes, the Swedish government to become a “global leader” in advocating “balanced, evidence-based policies” versus across-the-board legalization. Who knows? Maybe the White House drug office will send Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (with Maureen Dowd in tow) to Stockholm to learn more about Sweden’s hard-earned lessons from its drug liberalization effort gone awry.
While U.S. government rhetoric on drug policy was softening even before Obama took office, there is much that appears refreshingly pragmatic and flexible in current policy as compared to the harder and less nuanced law-enforcement approach of earlier years. The Administration supports a criminal justice reform program that includes more than 2,700 drug treatment courts providing 120,000 offenders per year with drug treatment instead of prison. It reaffirms the view that the optimal way to reduce the massive damage linked with drugs is to “reduce drug use itself.” In 2010, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law, which reduced the 100:1 sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine. Regarding substance abuse, the strategy contends that effective programs must be comprehensive and consider both “risk factors” (for example, drug availability and poverty) and “protective factors” (for example, parental influence). Yet what the strategy does not tell us is that these sorts of soft side efforts are not all or even mostly new. Drug courts, for one, started during the Clinton Administration. So the key question remains unanswered: If we have all of these great ideas and programs, why does drug use and abuse remain so stubbornly high?
Americans reading the most recently released national drug strategy would have no idea that the United States continues to aggressively fight drug production and trafficking in “source” and “transit” countries (largely in Latin America). None of this is even mentioned in the annual strategies. The Drug Enforcement Agency began in the early 1970s with an annual budget of $75 million and 1,500 agents; those figures are now, respectively, $2.7 billion and 5,000 agents spread across 63 countries. Active in its present form since the late 1980s, this world of interdiction in Latin America involves everything from busting cocaine laboratories to extraditing kingpins and tracking money-laundering flows. I recently met a new neighbor in our small college town of Davidson, North Carolina, who was a Navy submarine officer in the 1990s. One of his missions, he informed me, involved “parking” the sub right outside Colombia’s maritime boundary so the ship’s technical capacities could track the cell phone calls of Colombian drug kingpins. It would be easy to assume that this sort of militarized operation was simply how we used to run the international side of the drug wars, but the reality is that the United States and its counterpart countries continue to employ this type of strategy today.
The White House strategy contends its approach addresses a global problem in the “spirit of shared responsibility.” This is a fair and welcome point, and it is indeed true that the dynamics of drug production and consumption are shifting. For example, we learn through the strategy that cocaine use in the United States has dropped by about half since 2006; in a 2011 survey of adult male arrestees, fewer individuals were testing positive for cocaine use. What the strategy does not tell the American public, however, is whether these same individuals tested positive for other illicit substances. So when the strategy tells us that “progress” has been made on cocaine but “challenges remain”, it’s not really telling us much.
What are those challenges and why haven’t we solved them despite the billions of dollars we’ve invested in the war on cocaine over the past three decades, mostly in Latin America? And how does any putative success on the cocaine front translate into the broader goal of reduced drug consumption and abuse, especially now that marijuana and heroin are surging and synthetic drugs have become an enormous problem? For example, licit production of opioids worldwide has skyrocketed in recent years. The global manufacture of oxycodone, sold as OxyContin in the United States, jumped from two tons in 1990 to 135 metric tons in 2009, with over two-thirds of this production occurring in America. With OxyContin readily available to tempt and often addict our nation’s youth, does it even matter that cocaine consumption has dropped? And, as is so often the case in the eternal drug campaign, how do we know that cocaine consumption won’t go up in the future? We don’t know.
Even if it is less novel than advertised, the Obama Administration’s admirable approach to domestic drug policy is unfortunately not matched on the interdiction side. If we now admit that we can’t “arrest our way out of the problem” at home, why doesn’t the Administration talk more candidly about our interdiction efforts abroad? This is especially true now that state-level policies are moving in the direction of greater drug liberalization, at least on the pot front. It turns out that the Washington and Colorado marijuana legalizations violate more than one UN treaty on drug production, the very international statutes that Washington has spent the past several decades insisting that other countries enforce. Note that when Bolivia, under former coca growers’ union leader President Evo Morales, pushed to liberalize the international status of coca, the U.S. government successfully opposed it. The Morales government’s nifty slogan on the topic is “Coca Sí, Cocaína No.” Maybe the U.S. slogan should now be “Cocaína No, Marijuana Sí”?
Back in 2012, President Obama was blindsided at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, by host President Juan Manuel Santos, who argued for a less militarized and punitive and more holistic approach to the war on drugs. For the erstwhile drug hawk Santos, “after forty years of pedaling and pedaling very hard, sometimes you look to your left, you look to your right, and you are almost in the same position. So you have to ask yourself: Are we doing the correct thing?”
To his credit, President Obama acknowledged that the drug war was “a legitimate topic for debate” and that he welcomed a “conversation about whether the laws in places are ones that are doing more harm than good in certain places.” As the summit concluded, the participating hemispheric heads of state commissioned the Organization of American States (OAS) to conduct a report detailing various alternative scenarios to the status quo approach.
Published to little fanfare a year later despite the hubbub in Cartagena, the scenarios report is decidedly modest. The President suffered the undeserved diplomatic discomfort of looking like a drug war reactionary in Cartagena, but the much anticipated bold and contrarian report that was supposed to include viable and effective alternatives turned out to be a total dud. Apart from the banal contention that past and present approaches have not worked, the most stirring language in the 2013 report bleats that the single most important goal in the drug war is to tackle the violence associated with this illicit trade by “reducing the power of criminal organizations” while bolstering the “strength and effectiveness of democratic institutions and the capabilities of security, judicial, and law enforcement personnel.” Did we not know this already?
Ironically—and frustratingly for the President—the OAS report is more status quo than Obama’s own domestic drug strategy. Perhaps this is due to the fact that, contrary to what we might have assumed when President Santos leaned forward in Cartagena, Latin American publics are decidedly against any shift toward legalization. Even in tiny Uruguay, which recently legalized marijuana, polls indicate a strong majority against such policies. In what reads as a justification for this conservative stance, the OAS report found “no significant support” in any hemispheric country for decriminalization or legalization.
One has to wonder, then, whether President Santos’s “courageous” stance in Cartagena was just another act in Latin America’s lively political theater, especially since he has maintained aggressive anti-drug operations in Colombia. One American diplomat in Bogotá even told me, half-jokingly, that Santos’s dovish rhetoric on drugs was an attempt to secure the UN Secretary General position after he leaves office. In any event, North American pro-legalization groups that expected the OAS report to condemn the U.S. interdiction approach in the region were likely disappointed. Could it actually be that Latin Americans want the war on drugs to succeed more than we do, or at least more than Eric Holder’s Justice Department does? Indeed it could.
In June 2012, an American drug enforcement agent shot and killed a suspected drug trafficker during a raid on a smuggling operation in Honduras, the poverty-riddled Central American country with the globe’s highest murder rate. (An astounding 87 percent of the small planes carrying cocaine to the United States transit Honduras’ thinly populated northern coast.) Just a few weeks earlier, Honduran security officials, shadowed by U.S. agents as part of Operation Anvil, accidentally killed four civilians, including two pregnant women, in the country’s remote and now drugs-and-thugs-infested Mosquito Coast.
The tragic Honduras episode is a chilling reminder that, although talk of a new approach to the drug war may emerge from time to time from Latin American leaders or from pot legalization advocates in Washington, Colorado, Uruguay, and elsewhere, the militarized elements of the drug war haven’t changed in essence over the past quarter century. Distinct from the domestic side, no public statement proclaims, in effect, that “we cannot bust-cocaine-labs our way out of the problem.”
To be sure, U.S. antidrug efforts in production and trafficking countries now recognize the inescapable fact that when fighting the trafficking scourge, judicial, police, and social institutions are what matter most. U.S. counternarcotics officials bristle when criticism of the international side of the war on drugs is thrown their way. They point to all of the institutional-strengthening programs and alternative-crop development programs to demonstrate that criticism of a “militarized” war on drugs is inaccurate. Yet the fact that that there is a “soft side” to the war on drugs in Latin America does not automatically justify the overall strategy, which remains punitive and prohibitionist. We have been doing this so long using the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, Border Patrol (which the recently departed ONDCP chief Kerlikowske now heads), and of course the DEA that it has become routinized and so beyond the power of reflection to change it. The same may be said for the U.S. Southern Command itself. Southcom’s key operational component today is overwhelming the drug war, even though the Pentagon initially resisted such an unorthodox mission decades ago.
The idea that somehow the now readily given official acknowledgement of the vital rule of public institutions somehow justifies the longstanding drug war—and its often militarized components and expense (roughly $6 billion annually)—is facile and counterproductive. The problem, rather, is that there are few appealing alternatives to the drug war as usual—and the dearth of ideas in the OAS scenarios report seems to suggest as much. After, say, pot legalization, there is no clear path on the international drug war front that would make it a kinder, gentler variant of the interdiction and punitive-based approach currently practiced.
One hallmark of the almost half century-long U.S.-led drug war is that the strategy has no rearview mirror. There is no mechanism in the policy process to indicate at any moment that past policies have not met expressed goals. Each new policy—whether spraying coca fields in Colombia or reducing prescription drug abuse—has its own motivation and logic. Yet when confronted with a new set of challenges, we spend no effort to determine why previous policies did not succeed. Thus, it is not surprising that the Obama Administration put out a “Goals to be Attained by 2015” document that included decreasing the prevalence of drug use among teenagers by 15 percent and reducing the number of chronic abusers by 15 percent. Lamentably, if we had met these sorts of goals over the past few decades, we would not still have a major drug problem in the United States. Latin America is not the only place, it seems, where a lively political theater exists. Drug abuse has remained stubbornly persistent over the life of the drug war, even if particular drugs, like heroin, rise and fall in cycles of popularity within it.
It is simply not enough for the Obama Administration to tell the American public that it has “reason to be optimistic” about future drug abuse containment efforts, but then never reconcile this expectation to what the data actually tell us. Rosy predictions also undercut any effort to assess whether the amounts we spend on the effort are worth it. If cocaine use decreases but marijuana use grows over a given period, is that progress? Does that justify the budget expense? We don’t know, because we don’t even ask those kinds of questions. So we don’t know if the money could have been better used on one of the innovative programs that the Administration is so enthusiastically promoting, like drug courts or fair sentencing. Nor does the strategy address the obvious question of whether the drop in U.S. cocaine consumption simply reflects a shift to another substance.
Since the strategy mutes any connection to what happens in Latin America, the attentive public also cannot readily know that, while domestic cocaine consumption has dropped by half, there has been a concomitant spike in consumption in Brazil and Colombia. Another less publicized development that might dampen our optimism is that Evo Morales’s Bolivia no longer cooperates with Washington on the drug front. That almost no Bolivian cocaine makes its to the United States (American consumption is almost exclusively from Colombian product) likely explains why Washington did not make more of the reality that the U.S.-led drug war is no longer operating in that heretofore vital South American “source” country—not because of any success it scored, but only because commercial patterns changed.
Innovative programs or Sweden-style rhetoric aside, there is and will continue to be an inertial and almost impregnable military-narcotics-industrial complex, especially on the international side of the drug war—though it will always get less attention than the domestic side of drug policy, especially when punctuated from time to time by Mountain Sweep-style media spectaculars. The Obama Administration has shown that we can embrace, at least tentatively, a more holistic approach to our domestic issues. The question, though, is whether we have the courage to apply a new approach within the broader war on drugs, and tell the American people that the old way of doing things in Latin America just doesn’t work. Only courage can enable change. So far there is no sign of it.