If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, Trump’s drug policy is certifiable.
When President Donald Trump’s former attorney general Jeff Sessions handed in his resignation letter this week, drug reform advocates in the United States rejoiced. While in office, Sessions revived the country’s “war on drugs,” calling for the reversal of Obama-era leniency for low-level drug offenders and stricter enforcement of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. But while reformers at home may harbor hopes that the new attorney general will prove more open to softening domestic drug policy, President Trump’s stance on a global level should give them pause.
At the latest United Nations General Assembly meeting in September 2018, President Trump opened the week with an event titled “The Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem,” calling on countries to fall in line with the United States’ example of criminalizing drugs to reduce global production and consumption. But if the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, Trump’s drug policy is certifiable. If history provides any indication, the Trump administration’s punitive approach will not work. One only needs to look to Colombia to see its shortcomings.
Since the 1980s, the issue of illegal drugs – and specifically cocaine – has dominated the United States-Colombia bilateral relationship. Over the past 20 years, the US government has allocated nearly $10 billion to help build and fortify the Colombian military’s counter-narcotics capacity, focusing primarily on the aerial spraying of coca plants with herbicide, raids on drug labs, and interdiction.
The results of this supply-side oriented policy, however, have been lackluster. While coca production dropped in the early 2010s, cultivation has resurged in the past few years. Recent figures released by the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimate that drug production in Colombia reached an all-time high in 2017, increasing 17 percent from the previous record set in 2016. Prohibition has also not affected cultivation: 80 percent of the coca grown in 2017 was from the same area it has been grown in for the past 10 years.
The Trump administration’s response to Colombia’s coca surge has been to double down on its hardline approach to drugs. But perhaps more worrying than Trump’s pressure is the fact that Colombia’s leaders are following his example. While former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration abandoned aerial spraying of herbicides in favor of community-based approaches to drug eradication, newly-elected leader Iván Duque has promised to reverse this decision. In the words of Duque’s defense minister, Colombian farmers growing coca have become “a matter of national security.”
But the implications of this policy shift are truly a matter of life or death. For many Colombians, the decision to grow coca is hardly a decision at all when faced with few viable economic alternatives. And with the Duque government re-directing to more hardline tactics, many rural Colombians are already finding themselves between a rock and a hard place, under pressure from both drug-trafficking groups, as well as armed military and police on eradication missions. October 5, 2018 marked the one-year anniversary of such an incident, when Colombian security forces opened fire on a group of farmers protesting the eradication of their coca fields in the southwestern region of Nariño, killing 7 and injuring over 30.
Trump’s approach is not the only option. As US influence fades in other areas of international politics, Duque would be wise to look beyond Washington for cues on drug policy, as alternative examples abound.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy, led by a group that includes former Colombian and Mexican presidents whose administrations oversaw some of the failures of the War on Drugs, advocates for regulation rather than prohibition. Their recommendations draw from a growing body of evidence that shows prohibition-focused tactics, like Colombia’s proposed plan to forcibly spray coca crops, do not work. Instead, governments should work with communities to provide infrastructure, training, and other incentives to substitute illegal crops with legal goods, a tactic that has a much higher chance of working in the long run.
A number of countries are adopting this new approach to drugs. Portugal decriminalized the possession and consumption of all illicit substances in 2001. More recently in October 2018, Canada joined Uruguay as the second country in the world to legalize the consumption of cannabis.
These countries, despite US bluster about the importance of maintaining a unified, global prohibition on drugs, have not received any substantial rebuke from the Trump administration. Indeed, it is difficult for the US to criticize other countries when ten of its own states have legalized marijuana for recreational use and its citizens remain the world’s biggest consumers of cocaine.
Trump’s drug policy refuses to learn from decades of failures that resulted from the War on Drugs. Colombia has experienced those failures first-hand, and the country now faces a massive challenge to reduce its record-breaking levels of coca cultivation and cocaine production. But before Duque, or any other leader, looks to the White House as the north star on drug policy, they should ask themselves if Trump’s approach will produce results or more disappointment.