The newly published OAS report “Drugs in the Americas” not only marks a step towards deepening the debate on global drug policy, it also offers a glimpse of what effects a drug war paradigm shift could have on organized crime.
The report provides a detailed analysis of drug production, trafficking and distribution as well as the relationship between the drug trade and organized crime. Also in the report are four future scenarios describing the possible impact of different approaches to tackling the drug trade.
In the first scenario, “Together,” regional leaders launch a “sustained campaign against transnational criminal organizations and their violence, traffic in drugs, weapons, and corrupting influence.” Countries cooperate on the campaign even though there is no consensus over drug regulation, as it is based on the premise that it is not the current laws that are to blame but inadequate or incomplete implementation.
The approach is focused on targeting high-level drug trafficking organizations instead of low-level distributors and users and the emphasis is on preventing crime, violence and corruption. This is achieved through strengthening judicial and security institutions within individual countries and improving international cooperation.
In the scenario, which runs until 2025, this leads to a less corrupt and violent era, with state institutions that are less vulnerable to penetration by organized crime, and the dismantling of the most violent and dangerous cartels. However, ending the regional drug trade would remain “a work in progress.”
In contrast, the second scenario, “Pathways,” describes a region in which different countries experiment with different approaches to regulation. Some opt for gradual experimentation and reform, while others maintain current legislation but try to reduce demand through prevention.
In this scenario, it is prohibitionist laws and their unintended costs that are identified as the main driver of the social ills associated with the drug trade. Beginning with decriminalization or legalization of cannabis, some countries slowly begin to turn towards legalization, with policy evolving in step with shifting political environments and public opinion.
This creates tensions between reformist countries and those determined to stick to the status quo, which attack the other countries for violating the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (pdf). These tensions eventually result in a block of like-minded countries pushing for a complete overhaul of the convention.
By the end of the scenario, global drug legislation has become “a kaleidoscope of approaches to cannabis, coca leaf, and some new psychoactive substances,” but other drugs, including cocaine, remain banned. While organized crime groups are in decline, having suffered significant revenue loss through the legalization of cannabis, they retrench into cocaine trafficking and look to exploit other opportunities in pharmaceuticals and new psychoactive substances.
In the third scenario, “Resilience,” leaders decide the answer to the region’s drug problems lies neither with better law enforcement, nor with changing the regulatory framework. Instead, they focus on rebuilding and strengthening communities on a grassroots level.
This approach to the problem includes harm-reduction programs, legalization of possession of drugs and a change in judicial focus from punishment to rehabilitation. It also involves social intervention in vulnerable communities through measures such as improving access to education and jobs, and sports and cultural programs for at risk youth.
High level drug traffickers are still pursued and prosecuted, but users and low–level distributors are dealt with on a community level through restorative justice.
Progress is slow and frequently hampered by underfunding and a reluctance to change from certain sectors, such as law enforcement, which fuels criticism of the approach. However, by the end of the scenario, the thinking behind the approach has taken root and there have been gradual reductions in the impact of organized crime and the social ills associated with drug sales and consumption.
The last scenario, “Disruption,” portrays a world where there is no consensus between producer, transit and consumer countries. Countries most affected by violence become frustrated by the stubborn refusal to reassess global policy and by the hypocrisy of the legalization of cannabis in consumer countries that insist the war on drugs continues outside of their borders.
These countries shift their policies and scarce resources to focus on damage limitation, and away from drug production and trafficking operations. In some cases, countries strike “narco-pacts” with drug trafficking organizations — an agreement, tacit or otherwise, to let cartels control the flow of drugs in return for social peace.
Despite international outcry, these countries assert their right to sovereign control of their policies. There is a drop in drug interdiction and arrests of traffickers, and in some areas a reduction in murders. However, there is an increase in drug consumption in both traditional transit and consumer countries, as prices fall and purity increases.
There is also an influx of wealthy narcos into the countries that have abandoned the fight against trafficking. Their drug trade profits boost the economy but also buy political influence and community support and these countries are on the road to becoming authentic “narco-states.”
By 2025, the region is rife with international disputes and organized crime groups are strong.
InSight Crime Analysis
There is a growing consensus, particularly among Latin American countries, that the war on drugs has failed, and this latest report marks a milestone on the road to developing new policies. With the movement against a prohibitionist approach gathering momentum, some kind of paradigm shift now seems highly likely and the OAS scenarios offer a glimpse into the potential benefits and pitfall of new approaches. (See InSight Crime’s map showing a country-by-country breakdown of the positions on drug policy below.)
The first of these scenarios, “Together,” retains the current law enforcement first approach, despite the shift towards prevention over control and essentially describes the sort of policies that US President Barack Obama is keen to implement. However, at its core this is little more than tinkering with an approach that has singularly failed to stem the flow of drugs and the spread of organized crime. There can be no doubt that the institutional strengthening and increased cooperation called for in the “Together” scenario is critical to tackling organized crime in the region, but history would suggest it is highly optimistic to believe this alone can turn the tide.
The second scenario describes more fundamental efforts at reform through changing the legal framework on drugs. It acknowledges that change in this area will be gradual and come through a process of trial and error. However, by the end of the scenario, although cannabis and coca leaf may be legal, the mainstay of drug trafficking in the region — cocaine — remains banned, and so the drug cartels would retain the main source of their wealth and so their power and influence.
The scenario “Resilience” describes a holistic approach that would tackle the social conditions that make for fertile ground for organized crime. The roots of these social ills run deep and require committed and patient social intervention as well as significant financing to be successful. The measures described would likely play a key role in any long-term attempts to root out organized crime but by failing to target the criminal groups themselves — either through security measures or through removing their main revenue source — they are unlikely to be sufficient operating in isolation.
The last scenario is essentially a warning tale of what may happen if United States and other powerful consumer countries refuse to engage in the drug policy debate in a meaningful way. Many countries in the region are already approaching breaking point in dealing with the violent fallout of the drug trade and despite the inherent dangers of the approach, it will look an increasingly attractive option to countries incapable of tackling organized crime alone and frustrated by international intransigence.
An ideal approach to the issue would probably combine measures from each of the first three scenarios; strengthening state institutions, cutting off the revenue sources of organized crime and addressing the social conditions that help it take root. However, the main message from the OAS’ future projections is the need for countries to cooperate, to fully engage in a genuine debate on the issue and to try to reach a consensus. If leaders fail to achieve this, then no matter what they decide, they will likely leave enough space for organized crime to continue to flourish in the region.