A Just "War on Drugs"? Part Two

This is part part two of our series on the "War on Drugs" in America. Read part one here.

My walk home from work in Honduras often requires an encounter with a known neighborhood drug addict who chooses either to insult me or engage in proselytization, depending on the day. This uncomfortable occurrence is often followed later in the evening by the appearance of a second addict who comes to our door, begging for food because his money is spent to feed his addiction. I paint this picture not to stigmatize, but to convey a reality: our world’s approach to drug enforcement, both domestically and internationally, has failed, unnecessarily destroying or crippling the lives of many.

Earlier in the summer, I looked specifically at how the injustices in current policies manifested themselves: incarceration, unsustainable spending, and most significantly, destabilizing corruption and violence internationally. This week, I turn to two prudent and practical solutions that offer a more just response to the drug problem our society faces; this response seeks to restore the individuals I previously described, whose problems are typical not only of drug addicts in Honduras, but also of those in the U.S.

Although I have argued that the state has a legitimate interest in limiting drugs such as cocaine, its response should forgo its emphasis on criminal penalties when dealing with the violation of laws prohibiting consumption and possession, and refocus public resources on the health dimensions of this drug consumption.

What does this “focus on the health dimensions” of drug consumption entail? It implies treating the habitual usage of harmful drugs as a health problem, rather than an excuse to put criminals behind bars. Specifically, it means that violators of the law are referred to treatment centers, seeking rehabilitation, rather than prisons pursuing retribution. A growing body of research supports this approach and points to the many benefits it will yield. TheGlobal Commission on Drug Policy signaled to the wisdom and effectiveness of this approach in its 2011 report, noting that “For a $US 1.00 investment, the social benefit was estimated to be: 15 cents for coca plant eradication in South America; 32 cents for interdiction of refined cocaine between South America and the USA; 52 cents for US domestic law enforcement (customs, police); and $US 7.48 for treatment of cocaine users.”

Thus, treating addictive drug usage as a public health problem rather than a public threat promises to reduce consumption and restore the lives of individuals. This approach fits with the norms of public justice, by promoting the common good, and most importantly, by redeeming the individual and allowing her or him to develop according to the potential for which they were designed.

Secondly, the U.S. should strengthen and focus international funding to improve public security institutions abroad, rather than spending year after year on ineffective drug eradication and interdiction efforts. The United Nations Office on Drug and Crime reveals the futility of such efforts in recent drug control reports: in South America, eradication efforts in Colombia simply resulted in growing production in Bolivia and Peru in recent years. And over the first decade of the 21st century, drug prices dropped despite increasing interception of drugs.

These eradication and interception-minded approaches have focused on building stronger and elite state security forces, all the while neglecting more fundamental problems: a criminal justice system that doesn’t work, corruption, and fundamentally, the poverty that often drives people to cultivate and traffic drugs. Continuing these historically misguided efforts would ignore the demands of justice. Precisely speaking, CPJ’s conception of international justice asserts “countries should see their responsibilities for security, defense, and retributive justice as increasingly interdependent, and should cooperate to strengthen international law and institutions.” Illicit drugs clearly represent an arena in which overlapping responsibilities exist, and the United States has consistently failed to seek sustainable institution building, often employing unilateral eradication and interdiction policies.

Sadly the U.S. has often failed to give Latin America the respect it and its people deserve. The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, comprised of many of the region’s most well-respected leaders, authoritatively addressed this problem. The Commission notes that while the United States is the world’s largest consumer of drugs, it brings a repressive “war” to the terrain of other countries to fight its own problem. These leaders urge the U.S. take responsibility for its primary role in causing drug demand. How so? Through reduced consumption attained by the treatment provided in a public health-oriented model, the just approach we first considered.

Thus we come full circle: Justice, both nationally and internationally, demands a U.S. reorientation of its illicit drug policies. Doing so would respect the worth we ought to accord to the demands of other countries, and would ensure rightful treatment of our citizens domestically.

-Aaron Korthuis currently works for the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras on issues of citizen security. He graduated from Whitworth University in 2012, and will begin his legal studies at Yale Law School in the fall of 2014.