The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform


The War on Drugs does not directly combat drugs, but instead focuses on the growers, traffickers and consumers of such drugs, all over the world.

Led by a militarised approach, the War on Drugs is used to prevent the cultivation, production, import, sale and consumption of illegal psychoactive substances. US anti-narcotics policies have predominantly affected Latin America targeting the different levels as drugs are grown in South America and move north through the Caribbean and/or Central America towards the US consumers.

In many instances US international policy has become ‘narcocentric’, namely that US involvement with foreign governments in Latin America and Asia is largely driven by drugs.  This narcocentre has greatly influenced US bilateral engagement with countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Afghanistan in terms of economic agreements and human rights. In an extreme ‘carrot versus stick’ manner, foreign governments that cooperate with US narcocentric demands are greatly rewarded (with financial aid and diplomatic support); whereas foreign governments that are not deemed to be cooperating to adequate standard are politically ostracised and aid is often cut off.

US War on Drugs efforts have been an offensive based on three anti-narcotics pillars: extradition, militarisation and eradication [1].


A number of countries have signed extradition treaties with the US. Extradition is an extremely delicate policy. Whilst this measure has benefited countries with weak judicial systems or with widespread corruption, it has also meant that the national sovereignty of countries such as Colombia have been violated, with US officials showing their distinct lack of confidence in foreign judicial systems and forcing their diagnosis of how to tackle drugs on other nations.

Extradition implied that heavy-handed law enforcement was the best and most appropriate manner in which to eliminate drug production and trafficking, as foreigners were sent off to be tried in US courts. The threat of long sentences in US prisons was supposed to act as a deterrent to foreign traffickers (most notably Colombian); however, it encouraged traffickers such as Pablo Escobar to carry out a wave of narco-terrorism until the Colombian government agreed to remove the extradition agreement. This further spread corruption throughout the country as traffickers continued to bribe judges and police figures.

Extradition has undermined judicial systems and sovereignty outside of the US. Whilst politicians can parade high-level arrests, when leaders or high-level figures within the cartels are captured, it creates a leadership vacuum with lots of ‘lieutenants’ attempting to become the new boss; this competition invariably leads to increases in violence.


The ‘War on Drugs’ is not a metaphor. In many parts of Latin America, Central Asia and West Africa several thousand soldiers and members of the secret intelligence community are actively involved in international anti-narcotic efforts.

The White House now spends $1,400 per second in their anti-drug crusade which one scholar has termed an “unconventional, politically-driven fight against the illegal drug trade” [2].

US presidents including Regan and Bush Sr. and Jr. wanted to demonstrate to American voters that they were attempting to rid American society of the drug menace to society by going to source countries. Since Reagan labelled drug trafficking as a threat to national security in 1986, the CIA and various elements of the US military have been involved in international drug interdiction efforts in such countries as Afghanistan, Bolivia and Colombia. The separation between police and military activities has become blurred. These forces have been used to destroy drug manufacturing laboratories, search for and often kill traffickers and provide intelligence in order to stop trafficking.

Additionally, Washington has predominantly been unreceptive to foreign governments’ emphasis on the social aspects of drugs problem and certainly deaf to their complaints that the drugs trade was fuelled by the US’ insatiable demand for illegal narcotics.

The impetus behind greater military involvement can be seen in the radical words of Congressman Larry Hopkins when he stated:

We are serious about [the military’s] active role in this war on drugs, even if it means we have to drag [them] kicking and screaming every step of the way. [We] are going to have to straighten out their priorities for them. This is war. And they are going to have to lace up their combat boots and get involved [3].

Over two decades later these words have rung true, with permanent US military involvement in drug producing countries.

In the aftermath of the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks, the role of the US military (led by the Southern Command, known as Southcom) in Latin America has developed even further. Targeting a new, yet elusive enemy, referred to as ‘narco-terrorism’ (terrorism funded by drug cartels and traffickers), billions of dollars have been spent militarising counter-narcotic policies. Hundreds of billions of dollars have now been spent in such programmes as Plan Colombia (begun in 2000), the Andean Regional Initiative (begun in 2002), the Merida Initiative for Mexico and Central America (begun in 2007) and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (begun in 2009) as the military is used against drug users, traffickers, producers and cartel bosses.

This militarisation has unbalanced civil-military relations and increased human rights violations and these four programmes have produced minimal results with regard lowering the consumption, purity or availability of drugs in the US with more than $9 billion spent.[4] According to one commentator the expansion of Southcom’s influence in anti-drug efforts is “matched by the reduction of most US civilian agencies to the status of passive spectators of a fiasco” [5].

Eradication: Targeting drugs at their source

The main premise of the Drug War is to attack the drugs at their source, in an attempt to halt production altogether. Countries traditionally regarded as drug producers include Colombia, Afghanistan and Myanmar, where the vast majority of US counternarcotics aid is directed towards crop eradication.

James Van Wert, former Executive Director of the US State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, defined the aims of US eradication policy as the following:

U.S. government policy officials still maintain that eradication of illicit narcotics closest to the source of the raw material represents the most cost-effective and efficient approach to narcotics control within the overall supply reduction strategy. Illicit crops may be either eradicated involuntarily or destroyed through voluntary means. Eradication of illicit crops may be accomplished by physically uprooting the plants or by chemical or biological control agents…The Department of State believes that the supply of narcotics being shipped from Latin America to the United States could be reduced significantly if governments agreed to institute massive herbicidal spraying to reduce coca cultivation…[6]

Plan Colombia is one of the most famous US-led eradication campaigns. The programme was a bilateral counternarcotics and military aid agreement announced between the presidents of Colombia and the US in 1999. It has been aimed at targeting all those involved in the cultivation of coca or opium and it subsequent production and transportation (in the form of cocaine and heroin) into the US.

Central to Plan Colombia has been the principle of crop eradication, which has been mainly orchestrated from the air, via the use of aircraft first locating areas suspected of drug production, and then spraying them with lethal chemicals, killing the plants. However, this has resulted in a balloon effect, where if crop production is ‘squeezed’ at one end the air/coca growing will bulge in another area.

 Summing up Plan Colombia, one commentator has stated “the fact that 80 percent of the U.S. aid package is going to the Colombian military and police make it clear that Plan Colombia is a plan of war, not of peace” [7].

As has been shown with crop substitution (where farmers are financially encouraged to grow legal crops) and crop eradication in Afghanistan (where over 90% of the worlds opium supply is grown [8]), Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, it is often financially unviable for farmers to stop growing illegal crops. The majority of the farming population in these countries is poor and the potential profits of illicit crop growing offer marginalised communities the possibilities of schooling and feeding their families. In order to make alternative crops viable, poor farmers need credit and investment in local infrastructure; however, this is often not forthcoming. Regions such as the Amazon delta are not suited to intensive and crop heavy farming, so a hardy plant like the coca plant, that can be harvested between four and six times a year in tropical regions, becomes far more appealing [9]. Additionally, it can be impossible for farmers to find markets for their alternative products and are severely harmed by international trade rules.


[1] Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, ‘The Political Economy of Colombian-US Narcodiplomacy: A Case Study of Colombian Foreign Policy Decision-Making, 1978-1990’ (Ph.D thesis, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1990)

[2] Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, ‘The only winner in the ‘war on drugs’, The Guardian 2010,

[3] Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, ‘Proposition 19: a chance to end the ‘war on drugs’’, The Guardian, 2010,

[4] Cited in John Dillon, ‘Congress Draft Military to Battle Drug Traffickers’, The Christian Science Monitor, 23 March 1989 [5] Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, ‘The war on drugs: time to demilitarise’, Open Democracy, 10 August 2011

[6] James Van Wert, ‘The State Department’s Narcotics Control Policy in the Americas’, Journal of Inter American Studies and World Affairs, 30, Summer-Fall 1988, p.8


[8] Congressional Research Service Afghanistan: Narcotics and U.S. Policy

[9] Grace Livingstone, America’s Backyard: The United States & Latin America From the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror’, Zed Books, 2009