Our collective failure to control either drug abuse or drug trafficking has exacted an enormous human toll. In the United States more than 500,000 people have died from overdoses over the past decade, soaring to an unprecedented 71,000 deaths in 2019. In Latin America, increasing substance abuse combined with drug-related homicides have ruined many more lives.
The illicit drug industry has evolved far more rapidly than our efforts to contain it. Traditional dichotomies no longer apply. Developed nations both manufacture and abuse synthetic opioids; developing countries both produce and consume dangerously addictive plant-based substances. Throughout our hemisphere, the poor suffer most. Those who are socially and economically marginalized are more likely to develop drug use disorders and more likely to be victimized by criminal gangs.
The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission is an independent, bipartisan entity with a two-fold mission: evaluate a range of US counternarcotics programs in the Americas and then make recommendations to improve them.
Our mandate is to review policies in this hemisphere, though we recognize that drug abuse and trafficking are global problems, especially with the rise of powerful synthetics that can be produced and sold almost anywhere.
Organized crime—powered largely but not exclusively by illegal drug trafficking—also threatens the region’s still fragile democracies. The most extreme example is Venezuela, a democracy that has devolved into dictatorship, defying financial sanctions with the help not only of other unfriendly states—such as Cuba, Russia, and Iran—but also of transnational criminal organizations, including illegal drug and gold smugglers.
"We need smarter international policies within an interagency effort led by the State Department."
An increasingly complex threat requires a more agile, adaptive long-term strategy. We need smarter international policies within an interagency effort led by the State Department. Our overall effort should focus on accomplishing a fundamental foreign policy goal: reducing the supply of dangerous drugs by helping partner governments in Latin America counter vicious transnational criminal organizations.
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy should ensure that these policies are cost effective, providing the executive branch with research-based analysis and performance evaluations that measure both the positive and negative impacts of law enforcement and foreign assistance.This inter-agency effort must also address the challenge of money-laundering. US policymakers need to develop data-driven tools to detect and block the flow of illicit funds using new techniques such as cryptocurrencies and complex cross-border financial transactions.
The Commission’s evaluation of US policy in the region shows promising results: our assistance programs in Colombia are providing licit livelihoods in coca-growing regions; our capacity building in Mexico has strengthened criminal justice reforms; our police reform, anti-corruption, and violence prevention efforts have helped the troubled nations of Central America’s Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—make progress—albeit unevenly—toward more effective governance.
"US Policymakers need to develop data-driven tools to detect and block the flow of illicit funds."
The United States and its partners have also strengthened anti-money-laundering regulations, collecting data that can potentially be used to uncover the financial networks that perpetuate organized crime, corruption, and terrorism.
US-supported counternarcotics policies sometimes cause considerable harm, however, complicating rather than curbing drug trafficking and drug-related crimes. Coca eradication has moved illicit crops to marginal regions, threatening vulnerable communities. Kingpin targeting has fractured drug cartels, heightening inter- and intra-gang violence. Anti-money laundering efforts have spurred black and grey market innovations as traffickers and their financial enablers move from bulk cash smuggling into elaborate trade-based schemes and digital transactions.
Amid the economic havoc wreaked by COVID-19, it is more important than ever for the US government to spend its counternarcotics budget effectively. The pandemic has exacerbated conditions that are worsening our ongoing opioid crisis, such as lack of adequate treatment, economic distress, and social isolation. It is also likely to further weaken security and justice institutions in the Latin American countries that produce drugs or lie along drug transit routes.
"The ONDCP should ensure that these policies are cost effective, providing the executive branch with research-based analysis and performance evaluations. "
Two truisms about counternarcotics policy bear repeating: we cannot control the supply of dangerous drugs without also reducing demand and we cannot curb demand without also limiting supply. We may never end illegal drug trafficking, just as we cannot eliminate substance abuse. But we can better manage these deadly problems with a comprehensive strategy designed to address underlying causes and conditions, carefully measure progress, and eliminate or mitigate adverse consequences.
US policy to reduce drug demand has evolved in recent years. Since 2010, Congress has increased spending on treatment and prevention significantly, appropriating nearly double the amount spent during the previous decade. Though funding remains inadequate, policymakers understand the need for science-based approaches that treat substance abuse as a disease, not simply a crime or moral failing.
The federal government should apply the same scientific rigor to foreign supply-reduction efforts: designing and implementing a cost-effective, interagency strategy with carefully targeted policies to curb the flow of dangerous drugs into the United States while addressing institutional weaknesses in drug producing and transit countries that allow transnational criminal organizations to flourish.
Empower the State Department to develop and coordinate a whole-of-government effort to counter transnational criminal organizations abroad and reduce the foreign supply of illicit drugs. The Under Secretary for Political Affairs should be charged with coordinating a whole-of-government effort to counter transnational organized crime.
- The Undersecretary for Political Affairs should work with all relevant departments and agencies including USAID, federal law enforcement agencies, the US Treasury and the Department of Defense, to develop and implement coherent regional five-year international drug control strategies to reduce illicit drug trafficking, disrupt criminal networks, and discourage money laundering.
- To maximize organizational efficiencies and effectiveness, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) should be moved into Political Affairs at the Department of State.
- The Department of State needs long-term, flexible funding authorities, as well as the authority to disburse emergency funds to provide targeted assistance so that partner governments can prevent or contain emerging threats.
Replace the drug certification and designation process with more effective tools to assess country efforts to counter transnational crime and sanction those who fail to act. The current certification process offends our partners and does little to deter corrupt practices in unfriendly nations.
INL should produce a global report reviewing country efforts to counter trafficking and other transnational crimes, including US policies. This report should also assess whether US sanctions such as the Kingpin Act effectively target the most dangerous criminal organizations, especially those responsible for trafficking or producing fentanyl and other highly toxic substances.
Develop compact-based counternarcotics and law enforcement assistance programs. The Undersecretary of Political Affairs should empower US ambassadors to fashion foreign assistance compacts, based on the model pioneered by the Millennium Challenge Corporation.
- These country-led agreements should identify shared goals for combatting organized crime, strengthening criminal justice institutions, and protecting citizen security and human rights. The multi-year agreements should specify the roles and responsibilities of both the US and host government, as well as civil society stakeholders.
- This process should bring the US government and other donors together with political leaders and security officials to identify an appropriate, cost-effective reform agenda.
- The resulting agreements should be as transparent as possible and include robust monitoring and evaluation mechanisms based on quantitative and qualitative indicators collected by both program implementers and independent experts.
- These agreements should also include commitments by host governments to implement vigorous anti-corruption mechanisms and ensure transparency.
Reorient the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). The ONDCP should support drug control policies by providing data-driven evaluations of both domestic and foreign counternarcotics efforts, establishing outcome metrics and benchmarks.
- The ONDCP should work with other agencies to develop new long-, medium-, and short-term supply control performance metrics linked to its primary objective: saving lives.
- The ONDCP, implementing agencies, and partner governments should evaluate the second- and third-order effects associated with both drug trafficking and law enforcement efforts at each point in the drug supply chain. It should also work with the interagency to collect timely data on emerging drug trends.
Strengthen US Treasury capacity to investigate illicit financial flows. The international anti-money laundering/counter terrorism financing (AML/CTF) regime has grown increasingly complex, generating enormous amounts of data but relatively few successful prosecutions.
- Congress should provide additional resources to Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), strengthening its capacity to investigate money-laundering and other financial crimes and to assist foreign partners.
- Regulators should work with the private sector to improve the efficiency and quality of reporting.