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Why prescription drug abuse in the US impacts Latin America

A new Senate report says prescription drug abuse is one of the biggest drug policy threats facing the US, casting doubt on the conventional wisdom of Latin American cartels posing the greatest risk.

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Shifting drug consumption habits in the US also call into question repeated claims by Latin American countries that their struggle against organized crime is primarily driven by US consumers of cocaine and marijuana. The Senate Caucas report acknowledges the US’s shared responsibility in this problem, stating, “Ultimately, it is drug consumption in the United States that fuels violence throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.”

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While it is important for the US to emphasize this, it shouldn’t distract from the evidence showing that much of the violence afflicting places like Colombia, Mexico, and the Northern Triangle [El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras] is partly driven by growing domestic consumption in those countries. According to the Organization of American States’ (OAS) first ever report on drug consumption trends in the Americas, cocaine and crack use is rising across Latin America. The United Nations International Narcotics Control Board observed a similar trend in their 2011 survey of drug use dynamics in the hemisphere. As cocaine use goes down and prescription drug use goes up in the US, it appears that Latin America is compensating in terms of supplying its own cocaine and crack users.

This year has seen plenty of cries from Latin American leaders for a more nuanced debate on drug policy. One of the fundamental problems is that the US’s traditional focus on Latin America-sourced cocaine, marijuana, and heroin is outdated. Prescription and synthetic drugs – such as the “bath salts” that are reportedly becoming more widely available in Latin America, and which supposedly drove the “Miami cannibal” incident – may turn out to be the more significant drug policy challenges in the 21st century.

The US has already rung plenty of alarm bells that the prescription drug epidemic needs plenty of attention from policymakers. And if there are new drugs besides cocaine and marijuana that are causing the most significant health and security problems in the US, policymakers would do well to apply a new drug policy strategy that would have ramifications for Latin America as well. Especially if the new White House drug control strategy is supposed to emphasize drug use prevention and treatment, it would be a lost opportunity not to encourage the same approach south of the border.

  InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Elyssa Pachico’s work here

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Latin America bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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