What The U.S. Official Who Said The Drug War is Not a Failure Got Wrong

As Latin American leaders of countries devastated by our drug war speak out for legalization, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is defending America's drug policy. She didn't go so far as to say the drug war is a success, but said she "would not agree with the premise that the drug war is a failure," adding that, "It is a continuing effort to keep our peoples from becoming addicted to dangerous drugs," Reuters reported. Napolitano also pledged to step up communication between the U.S. and Mexico, in order to assist targeting traffickers and prevent organized crime between the two nations.   

But data does not support Napolitano's assertion that the drug war aims to prevent addiction. Just look at Obama's drug war budget for 2013: Of a staggering $26 billion,  41.2% of it is for treatment and prevention, while 58.2% goes to law enforcement. Treatment options are better for addicts than jail and prison, but for many low-income addicts without insurance, finding treatment before they get locked-up is difficult. 

What's more, assuming that the concern for people becoming addicted to so-called dangerous drugs is linked to the harm these drugs evoke, harm reduction strategies would be far more effective than catching traffickers in Mexico. Thanks to legal drugs like prescription pills and alcohol, overdose is now the leading cause of injury-related, or accidental, death in America. Selling naloxone, an opioid overdose-reverser over-the-counter, or reinstating federal funding for syringe exchanges, could save thousands of lives. But rather than create such vital programs, the U.S. will embark a witch hunt in Mexico.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has been targeting kingpins, but Mexico is still hunting its most wanted man, Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, who escaped from prison in 2001. According to Reuters,  the U.S. will assist Mexico in catching him (or trying to), all the while perpetuating more violence in the country where, in the past five years, 47,000 people have lost their lives in the drug war.

Napolitano justified what will likely be a long quest for Guzman by referencing Osama bin Laden: "It took us 10 years to find (al Qaeda chief) Osama bin Laden and we found him, and you know what happened there," she said.  But as we know, killing bin Laden has not made us any safer. Even the Republican debates show that terrorism is still a valid political issue in America, with or without bin Laden. Similarly, taking down one trafficker will not prevent another from stepping up to replace him.

Napolitano's defense of the drug war is also complicated by the fact that she was touring Mexico and Central America:

As Reuters reported

Napolitano's comments came before a visit to Guatemala where recently elected President Otto Perez has called for a regional debate on drug policy, including questions about removing criminal penalties for drug consumption and production.

"What we are putting on the table ... although we know some are against it, is decriminalization," Perez told reporters earlier this month.

"We have to study the issue of production, the issue of transport and also consumption," he said at a separate event.

Perez, a retired army general, won election last year promising a hard line on crime.

But shortly after taking office, he began talking about alternative approaches to fighting the drug war.

Perez said he would raise the decriminalization issue at a regional summit of Latin American leaders in April in Colombia.

El Salvador's president, Mauricio Funes, also said he was open to hearing new approaches to the drug fight, which has helped make Central America one of world's most murderous regions.

"We have to have open ears and open minds," Funes said after a meeting with Perez in Guatemala earlier in February. "I think decriminalization could deliver a serious hit to the finances of organized crime groups. ... But we also need to consider how (it) could stimulate consumption among our youth."

Drug violence has surged in Mexico and Central America as cartels fight over tens of billions dollars annually from selling cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine to U.S. users.


 Several former Latin American presidents, including Mexico's Vicente Fox, have also called for a debate on the legalization of drugs.

If visiting Central America did not convince Napolitano that the drug war is at least flawed, or that implementing a more progressive anti-drug strategy may be necessary, what would?

AlterNet / By Kristen Gwynne

Posted at February 28, 2012, 9:39am