The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission and the need for an intermestic approach to reform

In an effort to promote a rethink of US drug policy, Congress mandated a Commission to “conduct a comprehensive review of United States foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere to reduce the illicit drug supply and drug abuse and reduce the damage associated with illicit drug markets and trafficking.” The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission (WHDPC) report was released on December 1st.  What it says and what it doesn’t say are equally instructive.

First, what it says. The report makes a number of important recommendations that could put US drug policy formation on more constructive path.  They include:

  • Ending the drug certification and designation process, by which the US annually judges the drug control efforts of other nation. Understandably, this process is a regular source of irritation to the countries being judged by the largest drug consumer in the world.
  • In place of certification, working with countries to develop a “compact” that would identify mutual goals and responsibilities for both countries and provide a multi-year plan.
  • Moving the coordination of international drug policy to the Department of State instead of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP);
  • Changing ONDCP’s role to one of providing data analysis for international drug control efforts; and
  • Strengthening the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) so that it can better contribute to successful criminal prosecutions.

All of these things would be a step in the right direction toward US drug policy reform. If you want to learn more here is the link to the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the report.  

Now, what the report doesn’t say – anything about domestic/US drug policy. Drug policy is a transnational issue if ever there was one. The damage created by illicit drugs runs the gamut from environmental destruction in production areas, corruption in transit areas, the personal impact of addiction and violence created at each stage of illicit commerce.  

Limiting the scope of the study is a missed opportunity. This was clearly a political rather than a policy decision. Those in Congress promoting this long-needed review of drug policy felt that if they made it truly a Western Hemisphere study (including the United States), that they wouldn’t be able to get the study approved by Congress.  It took them years to get approval for this study. Adding the US would have gotten it bogged down in too many congressional committees. Sadly, they were probably right.  

So let’s be clear.  This isn’t a study about illicit drugs in the Western Hemisphere, it is a study about illicit drugs south of the Mexico/US border. This is a very limited way to think about the problem. Consumption drives production. Considering that most of the drugs produced in the Western Hemisphere are headed for the United States, you can’t solve the problem in the south without addressing it north of the border.

Policy makers are well aware that the problems associated with illicit drugs have to be dealt with holistically but no one can seem to figure out how to make that happen. During the hearing the Commissioners kept talking about the need for a “whole of government” approach, which is US policy wonk speak for getting all agencies of the US government to work together. But, how can you have a whole of government approach on the international side when you aren’t dealing with drug consumption, trafficking or corruption in the United States.  

Many years ago, the ONDCP was established with the intention of making it the coordination point for drug policy.  It hasn’t worked.  The WHDPC recommends moving the international side of drug policy into the State Department, making it the coordinator of all things drug related on the international side. That might not be a bad idea, but it doesn’t solve the problem. We have to figure out how to think about drug issues in an “intermestic” way, as both an international and domestic problem. 

Implementation of this report is a step in the right direction, but we need to sprint toward a new transitional/intermestic approach to the damage caused by illicit drugs.

Originally published in La Reforma’s MexicoToday.com 12/7/20.

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