U.S. drug czar: Legalization is ‘wrong’

From the print edition

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Drug trafficking and the violence it breeds is a curse that plagues every nation in Latin America, but decriminalizing any illegal substance – even marijuana – is definitely not the answer.

That’s the verdict from R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Speaking July 30 at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, the nation’s drug czar said there has been “considerable discussion here and in Latin America” about Uruguay’s highly controversial move to make marijuana legal.

“Too often, we face a polarized debate: legalization at one end of the spectrum and a war on drugs at the other,” he said. “The Obama administration is committed to a third way forward. Legalization is not our policy, nor is locking every offender up. Our approach focuses on the public-health challenge of drug consumption and science of addiction, and tackling the international security challenge posed by transnational criminal organizations. There are no simple answers to the global drug issue.”

Kerlikowske noted that “transnational criminal networks will not disappear if drugs were made legal. These organizations don’t derive all of their revenue from drugs, and they wouldn’t simply disband if drugs were legalized. They are diversified businesses, profiting from human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, intellectual property theft and other crimes.”

The profitability of drugs “is actually quite low” compared to that of other crimes like prostitution, piracy and the sale of human organs, he said, adding that “these groups are in business for money and power, and there is no limit to the schemes they will employ to extract illegal proceeds from our societies.”

During his talk, Kerlikowske announced that Colombian production of cocaine dropped by 25 percent in the past year, and 72 percent in the past decade – from an estimated 700 metric tons at its peak in 2001 to 195 tons last year. That places Colombia third in worldwide cocaine production after Peru (325 tons) and Bolivia (265 tons).

At the same time, the number of cocaine users in the United States has fallen by 39 percent since 2011, he said, while methamphetamine use has tumbled by 50 percent. Last year, a survey of adult males arrested in 10 U.S. cities showed that fewer men are testing positive for cocaine.

But all this didn’t happen overnight, said Kerlikowske, who served as top U.S. delegate to the June 25-26 anti-drug summit in Lima, Peru.

“There was a sustained effort requiring nearly a decade of steady, strategic pressure across more than one administration in both the United States and Colombia. And they didn’t happen because the strategy was based solely on a hard line. They were a result of a balanced approach that involved integrated strategic steps,” he said. “The results are historic and have tremendous implications, not just for the United States and the Western Hemisphere, but for the world.”

Kerlikowske said it’s important to recognize the Colombian military’s success in dramatically reducing the strength of the country’s biggest terrorist group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, “as well as the fact that law enforcement initiatives have been so well-structured. A number of countries clearly admire what has occurred in Colombia, and both presidents [Álvaro] Uribe and [Juan Manuel] Santos have made the dismantling of drug trafficking organizations priorities in their administrations.”

The drug czar, who has more than 37 years of law enforcement under his belt – including stints as police chief in Seattle (Washington), Buffalo (New York) and various cities in Florida – said “the security threat Colombia and the United States faced in 1999 is gone, and it has been accomplished without offsetting those results elsewhere. These lessons provide a model for dealing with challenges throughout the world, particularly in Central America.”

To that end, Kerlikowske recently visited Guatemala, where he met with President Otto Pérez Molina – who supports the decriminalization of marijuana – and also visited a women’s drug rehabilitation center in the capital. The facility held only 12 women, each paying the equivalent of $200 for treatment.

“This Guatemalan treatment center met a public health need that’s not confined by national borders. In many cases, the women being treated at this center had made enormous sacrifices to be there, and their choices for treatment had been woefully limited before they arrived,” he said. “My point is that drug consumption isn’t just a U.S. or European problem; drug consumption is a significant and growing social problem in places we once called supply and transit countries.”

Through the administration’s Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), the U.S. is “helping to create safe streets in Latin America, disrupt drug trafficking and support democratic institutions,” he said. “But CARSI funding also goes to gang prevention and social programs for at-risk youth to provide healthy alternatives to substance abuse.”

Kerlikowske said his four decades as a police chief taught him that “you don’t change the level of crime in a neighborhood unless you first have safety going into it. In Mexico, people often want to use Colombia as a template. Colombia took well over a decade to make these significant changes. Their citizens were taxed at a level that allowed the government to provide infrastructure, safety and security, which made a huge difference. Reducing corruption is really at the foundation of all this.”

It’s also important, he said, to provide economically sustainable alternatives to farmers who give up coca production in countries like Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.

“Institutional support for alternative development is absolutely critical, whether it’s fish farming, cacao or other crops. The success has been pretty amazing,” Kerlikowske said. “This not only reduces the amount of drugs coming out of Latin America, but also ensures that farmers have viable alternatives to support themselves and their families as they turn to alternate, legal crops.”

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the retail purity of powder cocaine purchased domestically has dropped by 28 percent since 2006, while the rate of U.S. workers testing positive for cocaine in the workplace fell by 63 percent between 2006 and 2011, Kerlikowske’s office reported. Unintentional overdose deaths in the U.S. related to cocaine dropped 41 percent, from 6,726 in 2006 to 3,988 in 2009, according to the most recent data available.

“In the last 30 years, drug use across the nation has generally declined, but there’s been some increase in the last couple of years. Prescription drugs not coming across any border have taken more lives than cocaine and heroin combined, and yet it’s been an unrecognized problem until about three years ago,” he said. “In fact, we’re concerned about people addicted to painkillers moving to heroin.”

During the discussion, Muni Figueres, Costa Rica’s ambassador to the U.S., complained that Washington’s annual “Presidential Determination on Major Illicit Drug Transit or Major Illicit Drug Producing Countries” is harmful to nations that appear on the list. This year, 22 countries – including Costa Rica and all its Central American neighbors – are on the blacklist. That, said Figueres, is hurting Costa Rica’s strategy for attracting foreign investment.

In response to the ambassador’s comments, Kerlikowske said: “There is no question in my mind that the majors list causes considerable angst for a host of reasons. It is well worth us being able to continue this dialogue and discuss where that should lead in the future.”