The Ethics of the US Role in the Drug War
In recent weeks, the United States has come under increasing pressure from Latin American leaders to rethink its drug control policy—and specifically, to at least start talking about decriminalization. As analysts such as Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance have pointed out this week, this is a big shift: At first it was just academics and activists advocating for legalization; then it was former heads of state. Now, the sitting presidents of countries including Colombia and Guatemala are demanding that Washington change course. Earlier this month when Vice President Joe Biden visited the region, he got an earful from the leaders of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica to that effect.
This debate is long overdue for many practical reasons; every pundit in every relevant country seems to agree that the drug war long ago failed. But there is also a very good ethical reason to start rethinking current US strategy. As the world’s largest consumers of narcotics, the American market has stoked violence, conflict, armed insurgency, corruption, and human rights abuses abroad. It would be akin to if U.S. consumers had bought diamonds from West African warlords in Sierra Leone and Liberia during conflicts there a decade ago. Whether those purchases are legal or not, they’d support groups that take a heavily civilian toll. Today, American money (and guns—another story) are propping up the drug wars faster than any government agencies, U.S. or foreign, can fight back. More than 50,000 have been killed in Mexico since 2006 alone. The president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, expressed the frustration that many in Latin America are experiencing when she told Biden “we demand the United States assume responsibility.”
Of course, one might argue that it’s not up to the United States to help sort out drug war conflicts abroad. And anyway, Washington certainly has contributed money to the cause—more than $6 billion in Colombia and another several billion now in Mexico. Biden promised to ask for more funds to assist countries in Central America during his visit earlier this month.
No amount of aid, however, can de-link the United States from these conflicts—and it’s this piece that has long frustrated many Latin American leaders. The United States isn’t just a foreign country, helping out troubled neighbors. It’s actually the very country whose consumers are keeping the market bouyant. It is part of this equation. So when Mexico goes to war with its cartels, the United States is, essentially, also at war.