US Drug Policy Needs a Shift Of Priorities

Too much is spent on supply-side measures

Although the federal antinarcotics budget has increased from about $2 billion in 1981 to a proposed $15.1 billion in 1997, drug use among both adults and juveniles in the United States is rising dramatically. The direct correlation between the amount of money spent on drug policy and the rates of drug abuse indicates a major flaw in the current system - but this is a problem of priorities and values, not funding.

Thousands of deaths, one-third of all HIV cases, and the intensification of social problems are all attributable to drug abuse. It might be expected, therefore, that President Clinton and the Congress would work together to eradicate these social ills. But that hasn't been the case.

Despite the antidrug and anticrime rhetoric of this election year, the fiscal year 1997 budget proposes to continue our de facto policy of allocating 70 percent of federal drug dollars to supply-side measures (interdiction, enforcement, and crop eradication) and 30 percent to demand-reduction initiatives (prevention and treatment). While this policy may be psychologically comforting for Americans who believe a liberalized drug strategy will lead to more drug addiction and crime, it is illogical. Simple economics dictate that where there is a demand, there will always be a supply.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy's World Wide Web page indicates "that there is compelling evidence to support the fact that treatment is cost-effective and provides significant public-safety benefits by breaking the cycle of drug use and crime." It is, therefore, irrational to spend more money on questionable supply programs than on demand-reduction initiatives that are proven successful. Drug prices are decreasing and purity levels are rising despite an increased focus on US supply-side measures.

What will persuade lawmakers to examine alternatives? Perhaps the threat of political and economic breakdown in Mexico.

The Mexican drug industry exists because of US demand. Experts claim that Mexico is responsible for 70 percent of the illegal drugs in America. But this is not only from South American transshipment. The Tijuana, Juarez, and Gulf cartels of Mexico are beginning to resemble the Colombian syndicates, whom they also work with.

These cartels are producing the drugs as well as laundering the proceeds. The high-level corruption reported by former Mexican drug official Ricardo Cordero and the recent assassination of three law-enforcement officials in Tijuana indicate a trend toward political violence and fraudulent behavior in this already unstable state.

The US Department of State argues that "no country in the world poses a more immediate narcotics threat to the US than Mexico." America's continued demand for illicit drugs will intensify the Mexican situation. If these cartels are able to increase their influence over the Mexican government, US economic interests will be in jeopardy. A look at past events in Colombia explains how.

Large cartels allow criminals to play an intricate role in the economy and law enforcement, which leads to:

1. Unfair competition. Low-pricing strategies and intimidation tactics used by cartels with "legitimate" businesses force competitors out of the market.

2. Infrastructure destabilization. In Colombia, it was not uncommon for guerrilla organizations to destroy petroleum and electricity facilities as well as other necessary structures. It is naive to think this will not occur in Mexico when the cartels have more power and influence.

3. High costs. The laundering of money by cartels into corporations and financial institutions increases inflation and raises the cost of living. The resulting influx of imports because of the high value of the peso will hurt domestic producers.

If US narcotics demand continues to rise at its current rate, it will only be a matter of time before Mexico reaches the levels of corruption and domestic terrorism found in Colombia. It won't be enough to change the situation by revoking the Mexican president's entry visa or cutting off foreign aid to Mexico, as we have done with Colombia. The possibility of having a neighbor engulfed in violence and instability and a major trading partner in economic chaos warrants a change in current policy. The solution is to decrease America's demand for drugs now.

It's an odd set of priorities and values in official US decisionmaking if the strongest argument for a change is economic, not human. The need for a change (at least an honest examination of alternatives) in current drug policy is so important that appeals must be made to all audiences.

The facts speak for themselves: While the government acknowledges that vigorous antidrug-education programs and community treatment centers are cost-effective and efficient, disproportionate spending on supply-side programs perpetuates the US demand for drugs. These problems, rather than a doomsday economic scenario in Mexico, should promote a change in US drug policy. Change because of the latter is tantamount to putting a price on life.

*Beau G. Kilmer is program associate in the Preventive Diplomacy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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