In This Review

Report of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission
Report of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission
By the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission
Available online, 2020, 117 pp
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Drugs and Thugs: The History and Future of America’s War on Drugs
Drugs and Thugs: The History and Future of America’s War on Drugs
By Russell Crandall
Yale University Press, 2020, 520 pp
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Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs
Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs
By Peter Andreas
Oxford University Press, 2020, 352 pp
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The United States’ five-decade-long “war on drugs” has failed miserably and has caused tremendous collateral damage. But no consensus has emerged on a better path forward. Three recent publications sketch the dimensions of the crisis. A congressionally mandated bipartisan commission endorses many of the basic thrusts of existing U.S. counternarcotics policies. Crandall condemns the devastation that the U.S.-led drug wars have caused in beleaguered countries in Latin America. Andreas sees drug consumption as inherent to the human condition. 

The U.S. Congress created a bipartisan independent commission to address a disturbing conundrum: illicit drugs remain plentiful and drug-trafficking organizations have grown stronger despite aggressive U.S. counternarcotics policies. In their report, the commission’s regional experts offer tightly reasoned reviews of existing programs, pointing to progress in some areas: stronger police and criminal justice systems in some countries, for instance, and the increasing treatment of substance abuse as a health-care problem rather than a crime or a moral failing. But these experts balk at truly confronting the massive failures that the report itself handsomely documents. Instead, they largely recommend staying the course, albeit with better coordination across programs and with smarter execution of policies. The commission notes the abject shortcomings of anti-money-laundering measures but badly underplay the enduring capacities of wealthy trafficking organizations to defy counternarcotics efforts. It recognizes that bureaucratic inertia and self-interest lead to the continuation of many underperforming programs, advocating research-based data collection and rigorous cost-benefit analysis of these initiatives. The chapter on Colombia urges the tighter coordination of interdiction, security, and alternative development strategies. As for drug-ravaged Mexico, the impact of U.S. training and technical assistance “remains unclear,” and the commission nebulously suggests the adoption of a “new strategic framework.” 

Crandall’s comprehensive, judiciously balanced review of over 100 years of U.S. counternarcotics policies results in a powerful, persuasive condemnation of the U.S.-led drug wars. He combines scholarly knowledge with his policy experience as an official in the White House and the Defense Department to show how the sprawling counternarcotics federal bureaucracy has failed to squash commerce in banned substances. The resulting harm at home and abroad has been enormous. U.S. policies have failed for many reasons: “the balloon effect,” whereby the suppression of one source of narcotics simply shifts supply to a new location; “the rule of replacement,” which means that newcomers quickly replace eliminated kingpins; the shrewd use of technological innovations by drug producers and traffickers; the debilitating corruption of law enforcement everywhere; and, of course, the irrepressible consumer demand in the United States for mood-altering drugs. Crandall recognizes the good intentions of policymakers in the U.S. government but decries “the inertia of the Beltway policymaking machine” and its systemic failure to objectively assess past actions. When it comes to tackling drug trafficking overseas, he concludes that the United States should “basically [call] it quits in the global supply-side war.”

Andreas chronicles the long histories of human interaction with six psychoactive substances: alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, opium, amphetamines, and cocaine. He uncovers myriad linkages between these drugs and the expansion of the military capacities of states. Governments have financed their wars by taxing these drugs, especially alcohol: taxes on wine, vodka, and whiskey have respectively funded French, Russian, and U.S. military operations in the past. Armies have kept their soldiers nourished, brave, and alert with daily doses of rum, caffeine, and even amphetamines. But Andreas’s strongest contention is that the U.S. war on drugs, primarily against cocaine, has given the American military a new mission and has contributed to the militarization of domestic police forces. In Latin America, U.S. counternarcotics policies have grossly distorted law enforcement priorities while drenching cities in blood. Andreas blames the obduracy of U.S. politicians and bureaucrats for the persistence of the drug wars, despite their evident failure and their huge financial and human costs.