Wednesday, March 16, 2011

CFR report calls for Commission on alternatives, including legalisation

A new report from the US based Council on Foreign Relations titled 'The Drug War in Mexico: Confronting a Shared Threat' makes a powerful critique of the ongoing enforcement-led US response, before calling for a more pragmatic approach built more around development and public health interventions. The report specifically calls for a Government inquiry into the potential costs and benefits drug legalisation, and for the Federal government to allow state level experimentation with the legalisation, taxation and regulation of cannabis/marijuana.

The analysis that leads to these recommendations is not new, but is clearly stated (for full text with references - see pdf) highlighting the need to look at the potential costs and benefits of current policy against those of policy alternatives (a DTO is a Drug Trafficking Organisation):

Rethinking U.S. Drug Policy
Mexico’s security crisis illustrates the limitations of current anti-drug strategies and offers an opportunity to shift the paradigm to a more sensible approach. Over the last four decades, the war on drugs has lacked clear, consistent, or achievable objectives; has had little effect on aggregate demand; and has imposed an enormous social and economic cost. A state-driven, supply-side, and penalty based approach has failed to curb market production, distribution, and consumption of drugs. The assumption that punishing suppliers and users can effectively combat a large market for illicit drugs has proven to be utterly false. Rather, prohibition bestows enormous profits on traffickers, criminalizes otherwise law-abiding users and addicts, and imposes enormous costs on society. Meanwhile, there has been no real effect on the availability of drugs or their consumption, and three quarters of U.S. citizens believe that the war on drugs has failed.

One flaw of current U.S.-Mexico strategy is the false presumption that international trafficking of drugs, guns, and cash can be effectively addressed through interdiction, particularly along the nearly two-thousand-mile U.S.-Mexican border. After a three-decade effort to beef up security, the U.S.Mexico border is more heavily fortified than at any point since the U.S.-Mexico war of 1846–48. The United States has deployed more than twenty thousand border patrol agents and built hundreds of miles of fencing equipped with high-tech surveillance equipment, all at an annual cost of billions of dollars—with $3 billion per year spent on border control alone. While this massive security build-up at the border has achieved maximum attainable levels of operational control, the damage to Mexico’s drug cartels caused by border interdiction has been inconsequential. Meanwhile, there have been several unintended consequences of heightened interdiction at the border, including added hassles and delays that obstruct billions of dollars in legitimate commerce each year, the expansion and increased sophistication of cross-border smuggling operations, and greater U.S. vulnerability to attacks and even infiltration by traffickers. Further efforts to beef up the border through more patrolling and fencing will have diminishing returns, and will likely cause more economic harm than gains in security for the struggling communities of the border region.

Given the limits of U.S. drug policy, there is a need for more information and analysis to weigh the costs and benefits of current efforts against alternative policy options. For example, one recent study suggests that legalizing marijuana would cause as much as $1 to 2 billion in losses for Mexican drug traffickers, since competition from legally registered producers would drive them out of the business. Since these DTOs would continue to smuggle other profitable illicit drugs, the main benefit of marijuana legalization would be to allow U.S. border security and law enforcement to focus their resources on other problems. Of course, while support for this idea is growing, the potential hazards and limitations of drug legalization are substantial. Legalization would almost certainly cause drug traffickers to move into other illicit activities to maintain profitability, so U.S. and Mexican authorities would still need to develop better measures to combat kidnapping, robbery, extortion, and other forms of organized crime. Meanwhile, as with other controlled substances, like tobacco and alcohol, increased recreational drug use would likely result in widespread use and significant social harms in both countries, including traffic fatalities, fatal overdoses, addiction, and chronic health problems.
Any effort to legalize drugs would need to proceed with careful study, ample deliberation, and due caution. Yet, with or without legalization, authorities should work with greater urgency and focus to develop public health and law enforcement measures to prevent, treat, and reduce the harms associated with drug consumption. In the end, treating drug consumption and organized crime as separate problems will make it possible to address both more effectively. To make this possible—and before other countries or even some U.S. states venture further down the road toward drug legalization—the U.S. federal government should move quickly to examine the current approach and chart a course toward a more effective drug policy.
The author seems to make somewhat sweeping, non evidence-based assumptions about reform and increasing use (although it is ambiguous - is he merely warning or the dangers of increased use if the process is ill managed?)  and fails to make a distinction between use and misuse, or prevalence and harm (See Blueprint for Regulation, p. 40)

It is, however, worth reading the whole 56 page report. The key drug law reform recommendations are:

Reevaluate U.S. Drug Policy

The U.S. Congress should commission an independent advisory group to examine the fiscal and social impacts of drug legalization as well as other alternative approaches to the war on drugs. The commission should be provided adequate funding---at least $2 million---to provide a comprehensive review of existing policies and develop realistic, clearly defined, and achievable policy recommendations for reducing the harms
caused by drug consumption and abuse.

Shift U.S. Counter-Drug Priorities to Focus on Major Sources of Illicit Income
To allow policy experimentation, the federal government should permit states to legalize the production, sale, taxation, and consumption of marijuana. While testing this policy shift, authorities should redirect scarce law enforcement resources to focus on the more damaging and socially unacceptable drugs (like heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine) from which Mexican DTOs derive more than 70 percent of their drug proceeds.

The first of these calls is in line with Transform's call for current drug policy and alternatives to be subject to meaningful scrutiny in the form of an Impact Assessment.

We would question the wisdom of directing resources towards more risky drugs proposed in the second (no more likely to succeed, and just as likely to lead to unintended negative consequences as any prohibition where demand is already established) but the call for an experiment in legalisation and regulation of cannabis is still an important one for an influential body such as the CFR to be endorsing.


gart said...

Any step towards drug liberalisation and regulation is certainly welcome and should be supported. But how disconcerting and disappointing it is when one finds the call for legalisation and prohibition in the same sentence, so to speak. Unfortunately, this is not the first document to do that, for studies and analyses pursuing this schizophrenic approach abound. One can only assume that something deeply ideological, prejudicial or irrational prevents people to understand that the problem is prohibition — and not the drugs themselves. No matter what drug one is considering, prohibition is not the solution...far from it, it can only make things worse.

Incidentally, there is not such thing as “unintended consequences” when it comes to implementing and enforcing the policies associated to the prohibition regime. To think so is equivalent to accept that one can explain away the horror and destruction of a war by resorting to the concept of “collateral damages”. They are not unintended and they are not collateral, they are the INEVITABLE consequences of pursuing a war.

Gart Valenc

Rob said...

This has barely been reported in the media.

Anonymous said...

Hey, the CFR are one of the secret pillars of the New World Order, along with the Bilderberg Group and the Trilateral Commission....finally, we're part of the conspiracy! ;-)