Gender: Male Location: The Proud Nation of Kekistan
The War on Drugs: A Failure
This is an essay I wrote for my Govt class
There are a number of areas of political interest that involve United States foreign policy, and one of these is the war on drugs, which heavily involves Latin American nations. The war on drugs generally consists of the domestic prohibition of narcotics, the use of law enforcement to target the illegal drug trade domestically, the use of military aid and intervention to target the illegal drug trade in other nations, and the use of negotiation and leverage to coerce other nations into helping the US government crack down on the production and sale of narcotics, all with the goal of reducing the illegal drug trade and domestic drug use. Some would say the term “War on Drugs” is over dramatic, however given that wars generally involve tragedy, suffering, the use of force, a noticeable expenditure of national resources, some pretty major ethical violations, and a large section of the population questioning whether or not such an endeavor is justified, I’d say “war on drugs” is the proper terminology to use when describing these policies.
An ethical analysis of these policies is best conducted through a Lockean lens, specifically relating to social contract theory and the idea of inalienable rights; life, liberty, and property. According to social contract theory a government’s primary obligation is to its own citizens, and thus domestic impact will be weighed more heavily than the foreign impact. The aim of the war on drugs is a public health and safety concern, essentially a measure to protect the right to life of US citizens, and to what extent the war on drugs has reduced the consumption of dangerous narcotics will determine whether or not these policies have achieved the ethical good they were created for. The cost of enforcing such policy however is an infringement on the liberty and property rights of US citizens through taxation, incarceration and the legal restriction of certain personal behaviors and economic ventures, and this will be weighed against how well these policies actually achieve their goals. The foreign impact of the war on drugs can be ethically weighted by how successful US foreign policy has been at combatting the illegal drug trade within Latin America, as well as what loss of life, infringement on the sovereignty of foreign nations, and impedance to mutually beneficial international relations served as the cost of pursuing this end. On almost all of these accounts, the war on drugs has been a spectacular failure.
The cost of the war on drugs to the rights of the citizens of the United States is not a small one. A study conducted by Harvard in 2008 demonstrated that the annual cost of enforcement and incarceration of drug prohibition is roughly $41.3 billion, and went on to suggest that legalizing drugs and taxing them at similar rates to alcohol and tobacco would generate an estimated $46.7 billion in tax revenue (Miron 2011, 1). This constitutes a net $88 billion infringement on the property rights of US citizens through taxation. Additionally the cost of the war on drugs is an infringement on the right to liberty of US citizens, given that the war on drugs is responsible for 14% of the US prison population (Roeder 2015).
Since drug use doesn’t necessarily violate anyone else’s rights, drug prohibition could be considered an excessive violation of personal liberty. Most significantly are the violations of personal liberty related to cannabis and psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin. Cannabis is chemically safer than caffeine, being less addictive and much less toxic, and also possesses great medical potential, with hundreds to thousands of new medicines being developed from its hundreds of non-toxic and medically active terpenes and cannabinoids (Malmo-Levine 2016). Psychedelic drugs are also physiologically safe, with no documented deaths from the chemical toxicity of LSD or psilocybin (Rega 2015) (van Amsterdam 2010). Additionally the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine performed a study with psilocybin where 95% of the participants said taking psilocybin was one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives, and permanent positive changes in their personality occurred (Szalavitz 2011). To put it bluntly, the infringement on individual freedom by prohibition bars US citizens from legally partaking in substances less dangerous than alcohol, and prevents valuable medical research into certain psychoactive substances that have clearly displayed benefits beyond recreation.
These policies carry an even graver cost for foreign nations, with one of the most noticeable costs being actual casualties in the war on drugs. For instance, “the upsurge in violence that has occurred in Columbia, Peru, and other drug-source countries is caused- or at least exacerbated by- America’s insistence on a prohibitionist strategy” and more specifically in Colombia the violence has escalated to the point where it actually jeopardized Cuba’s political system and tens of thousands of innocent people in Cuba have been “injured or killed in the war between government forces and antigovernment insurgents and their drug trafficking allies” (Carpenter 2014, 5). The cause and effect relationship here is rather obvious; the criminalization of narcotics hands over a very profitable industry to criminals, and for a government less stable and powerful than the US, cracking down on criminals with this much power will lead to some very serious conflict.
A lot of the time, enforcement of policies designed to counteract the drug trade have had a direct hand in the deaths of Latin Americans. For example, at one point the Peruvian government cooperated with the US government in an attempt to stem the transportation of coca leafs from Peru to Colombian cocaine labs. US surveillance planes would provide information to the Peruvian air force regarding suspected drug traffickers, and the Peruvians would send planes to intercept the shipments and order them to land for inspection. Unfortunately the Peruvian policy was to shoot down the plane if it took evasive action or failed to respond to the request, and accordingly numerous innocent people were shot down in the effort to enforce this policy given its low standard of evidence for the use of force, including a family of American citizens who were returning from missionary work in 2001 (Carpenter 2014, 1). Another example of the detrimental effects of US efforts to combat the illegal drug trade in foreign countries is the US sponsored effort to eradicate drug crops through aerial spraying programs. Often these spraying programs would kill off food crops along with the drug crops, which constitutes both a blatant violation of the property rights of Latin American farmers, and an act that ultimately lead to deaths resulting from the ensuing poverty and famine (Carpenter 2014, 5).
Beyond the point of violating or leading to the violation of the individual rights of Latin Americans and US citizens however, US foreign policy in the war on drugs has also threatened and infringed upon the sovereignty and democracy of Latin American nations. As previously addressed, the war on drugs has jeopardized Colombia’s political system by turning over a profitable industry to the illegal market through prohibition, and through their efforts to combat the illegal drug market giving said criminals with a significant source of income cause to oppose the Colombian government and commit acts of terror. Even aside from generating conflict that destabilizes democratic political systems in certain countries, the US government has directly wielded political pressure to coerce Latin American governments to pursue and commit themselves to policies they may not otherwise be comfortable with and may not be the best for their own citizens. In 2012 Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina expressed frustration with the failed war on drugs and the taboo of discussing the decriminalization of drugs as a legitimate option, no doubt the result of the serious political pressure the US government puts on its allies to assist their hardline stance in the war on drugs (BBC 2012).
More recently, current US President Donald Trump threatened Colombia with decertification as a partner in the war on drugs, unless they did more to reverse a record surge in cocaine production. This is particularly troublesome because Colombia has long been an ally of the US in its war on drugs, having reportedly seized 44 tons of cocaine for every ton of cocaine the US has interdicted, and having endured drastic death tolls. Adam Isaacson, at the Washington Office on Latin America, rightly asserted that the message Trump was sending was that “no matter how many years you collaborate with the U.S., if you deviate from our preferred strategy for a moment, we'll publicly humiliate you.” It’s clear from this example that the US government unfairly wields its influence to dictate what other governments do with their own policy and resources. Aside from how unethical it is, such measures also unpractical for the US’s diplomatic interests, as Isaacson asserts that Latin America “has long resented the U.S. drug certification process” and that Trump’s threat would “take the bilateral relationship to its worst place in two decades" (CBS 2017).
“I am Darth Umbravon, and I am the darkness, I am the Shadow of the Sith!”
Gender: Male Location: The Proud Nation of Kekistan
So what success has the war on drugs had in reducing the supply and consumption of drugs and protecting the lives of US citizens that would make all of these consequences worth it? Well according to the UN Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the war on drugs has “clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption” and that “apparent victories in eliminating one source or trafficking organization are negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers” (Jahangir 2011, 2). Additionally an analysis of drug retail prices by the Rand corporation indicates a greater availability and lower cost of drugs such as heroin and cocaine rather than a reduced availability (Caulkins 2005, 7). Rather than helping protect the health and safety of US citizens, the war on drugs has actually put them at greater risk by stigmatizing drug users, responding to drug use with punishment rather than rehabilitation, handing the sale of narcotics over to an unregulated illegal market, and terrifying drug users from seeking medical help (Gray 2012, 131-146).
As the report to the United Nations puts it, “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world” (Jahangir 2011, 2). The war on drugs has spectacularly failed on virtually every ethical criteria. It has infringed upon the liberty and property of US citizens, put our foreign relations at risk, lead to a substantial death toll in Latin America and the violation of the property rights of Latin American farmers, and infringed on the sovereignty of Latin American governments. For this cost the war on drugs has failed to achieve more than temporary victories against the illegal drug market, failed to curtail both the supply and consumption of drugs, and kept drug users away from regulated substances and necessary medical aid. As such my policy recommendation would be an end to the war on drugs, including the legalization of cannabis and psychedelics, at the very least the decriminalization of all drug use, and an end to drug based US intervention in Latin America (save for protecting our allies governments from narco terrorists). Such policies would deal a major blow to the drug cartels and put an end to the infringement on people’s inalienable rights by the US government. Though there would still be victims of drug use, almost all of them would be victims of their own decision making rather than the violation of their rights, and they would have a greater ability to seek medical aid and rehabilitation under such a system. This may not be a perfect solution, but I can confidently say it’s better than the current paradigm.
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Carpenter, Ted Galen. Bad neighbor policy: Washingtons futile war on drugs in Latin America. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Caulkins, Jonathan P., et al. How Goes the "War on Drugs"?: An Assessment of U.S. Drug Problems and Policy. RAND Corporation, 2005.
Gray, J. & Gray, J. P..Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It: A Judicial Indictment of the War on Drugs. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012. Project MUSE,
“Guatemala's president urges debate on drug legalisation.” BBC News, BBC, 25 Mar. 2012,
Jahangir, Asma, et al. “War on Drugs.” Global Commission on Drug Policy, Global Commission on Drug Policy, June 2011,
LSD Toxicity Treatment & Management.” LSD Toxicity Treatment & Management: Approach Considerations, Prehospital and Emergency Department Care, Inpatient Care, 3 May 2017,
Malmo-Levine, David. “Cannabis vs Caffeine: Which is Safer, a Cup of Coffee or a Puff of Weed?” Cannabis Culture, 20 Apr. 2016,
Miron, Jeffery A, and Katherine Waldock. “The Budgetary Impact of Ending Drug Prohibition.” Object.cato.org, Cato Institute, 2011,
Ollie. “Releasing Drug Offenders Won't End Mass Incarceration.” FiveThirtyEight, FiveThirtyEight, 15 Mar. 2016,
van Ansterdam, Jan. “Harm potential of magic mushroom use: A review.” WebCite query result, ScienceDirect,
“I am Darth Umbravon, and I am the darkness, I am the Shadow of the Sith!”
Good post. I've been pro-marijuana legalisation for a while, but it took a little longer to come round to wide spread drug decriminalization. However, when one looks at the devastating effects this whole drug war has had, coupled with the myriad of other important areas where the government could allocate its resources, it really becomes the only humane and sensible option. Rehabilitate drug users and take the drugs out of the black market. Pretty sure Portugal and Switzerland have done this to some success.