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Colombia’s Petro Sees a Way Out of the Failed Drug War. Will the U.S. Cooperate?

Colombia, one of the world’s top producers of cocaine, has long been a key partner in Washington’s failed war on drugs. But Gustavo Petro, the country’s newly sworn-in president, has made good on a campaign pledge to take the country in a different direction. Last month, he said he would end forced eradication of coca, and support legislation to decriminalize and regulate cocaine sales in an effort to undercut illicit markets and the profit motive that drives them.

Here at home, the Biden administration has also signaled an important shift. In April, Dr. Rahul Gupta, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, introduced a new strategy that directs federal resources to harm-reduction services. The aim is to prevent deaths from opioid overdose by increasing access to medical treatment and addiction recovery programs, and promoting alternatives to incarceration for minor drug-related offenses.

This new strategy recognizes that the way we have approached the drug problem here at home hasn’t worked. But U.S.-led international drug control efforts have also been a staggering failure, contributing to violence, degradation and displacement in places like Colombia, which largely export cocaine. It has also fueled the move toward synthetic opioids like fentanyl, driving overdose deaths here at home. The Biden administration’s new forward-thinking national policies are a step in the right direction, but the president must go further and end the global drug war.

In the 1980s, the United States began working closely with the Colombian National Police to reduce illegal drug production and trafficking, including by eradicating coca fields and intercepting smugglers. Then in 1999, President Bill Clinton signed into law Plan Colombia as violence and drug trafficking escalated and a concern about guerrilla influence grew. The plan sought to stabilize the nation and undermine drug production, among other things. But the militarized crackdown failed to stamp out cocaine production.

Plan Colombia has also taken a staggering human toll. The Truth Commission created in 2016 as part of that country’s peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia recently found that the war on drug trafficking left more than nine million victims, a vast majority of whom were civilians. More than 450,000 people died, 121,768 went missing, thousands were kidnapped, raped or tortured, and millions were displaced. The panel called on Colombia and the United States to move toward the legal regulation of drugs.

In the meantime, the drug overdose crisis in the United States killed more than 107,000 people last year alone, a significant acceleration of a deadly trend that has claimed nearly a million lives in the past two decades. Dr. Gupta — the first medical doctor to hold the position of drug czar — knows the impact of this crisis firsthand, having served as health commissioner in West Virginia, the state with the highest overdose mortality rate.

Though a place like West Virginia may seem removed from the jungles of Colombia or the mountains of Mexico, they are connected by U.S. drug control policy. Prohibition measures abroad not only have failed to stop the flow of drugs but also have been a key driver of the deadly innovations in the drug supply here at home.

While forced eradication can temporarily decrease the supply of drug crops in a particular location, studies have shown that these reductions are always temporary. In fact, experts have long recognized that crackdowns in one place merely create a “balloon effect” in which production and trafficking shift to another place. Cultivators move production to locations under less scrutiny, and traffickers move to new territory — as we have seen in the shift in recent years from Colombia to Mexico and Central America.

Further, going after high-profile kingpins merely splinters drug trafficking organizations into new factions, increasing competition and violence in source countries. As a result, traffickers are pushed into ever more remote and often ecologically fragile areas — with devastating environmental effects that contribute to displacement.

And perhaps most important, militarized source-control measures and increased border security efforts actually create incentives for traffickers to find new profit sources that are easier to manufacture and transport, as we’ve seen over the decades — from cannabis to cocaine and heroin, to methamphetamines, and now to synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Combined with a well-documented crackdown on overprescribed prescription painkillers here in the United States, this has led to an explosion in the supply of the fentanyl that is driving our overdose crisis.

Ultimately, more than four decades of the U.S.-led war on drugs abroad has not only failed to reduce the supply of illicit substances — it has actually made them more dangerous. A recent U.N. report found that global drug use is up 26 percent from a decade ago. Another survey by the Drug Enforcement Administration confirmed that despite decades of these source control measures, drug prices remain steady, purity and potency remain high, drugs remain widely available, and overdoses are skyrocketing.

“It is time for a new international convention that accepts that the war on drugs has failed,” President Petro said during his inauguration speech, echoing an argument that has been made by other Latin American leaders in recent years. Promoting policies that foster violence overseas will do nothing to reverse the trend toward an increasingly unsafe drug supply here at home.

The Biden administration has taken key steps to address our failures here at home — but to find lasting success, it must end our drug war abroad, as well.

Christy Thornton is an assistant professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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