Last week, Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy spoke before the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission. As expected, he touted the effectiveness of the newly unveiled “Third Way” strategy that the U.S. government is currently promoting. He framed the third-way as the “middle ground approach to drug policy” between legalization and regulation of drugs and incarcerating all consumers. This myopic and simplistic view of the problem is simply a recapitulation of a failed rhetorical strategy from early on in the Obama administration (anyone remember Kerlikowske declaring that he had “ended the war on drugs”?). As Kerlikowske echoed President Obama’s comments that the legalization debate should be had, he also unequivocally shut it down. It almost seems as if they are trying to pander to both sides—all while the federal government raids medical marijuana dispensaries.
During his remarks to the group (held in Washington, DC), Kerlikowske stressed that it is possible to reduce drug demand in the United States and highlighted the work of public health officials to direct drug users to services, rather than turning to incarceration as a first resort. He mentioned that drug use had declined by one third since the 1970’s, particularly in cocaine use. While methamphetamine use has also significantly decreased in the last five years, Kerlikowske failed to mention increases in prescription drug abuse or other synthetic drugs.
In general, the speech by Kerlikowske was disappointing and toed the line already laid out by the current strategy. In general, the speech by Kerlikowske was disappointing and toed the line already laid out by the current strategy, despite his differentiation between users and criminals (although users are still highly criminalized). However, by the end of his remarks, he reverted back to the usual discourse regarding the need to combat entities that threaten public safety and democratic institutions, such as transnational criminal organizations. He re-affirmed U.S. support for the United Nations Conventions and once again dismissed regulation as a legitimate policy.
Following the Summit of the Americas, in Cartagena, Colombia, in April, President Santos asked the Organization on American States to form a taskforce that would be begin to look at the problem of drug trafficking and debate and discuss various policy strategies, including legalization and regulation. Before and after the Summit, United States government officials tried to dissuade Latin American leaders from engaging in the discussion, first with visits from U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and followed by Vice President Joe Biden. Even with this pressure, Latin American presidents continue to push the discussion forward, with Guatemalan president, Otto Perez Molina and President Santos leading the way. It appears that they are still trying to influence higher-level policy-makers through Kerlikowske (read: President Obama).
Kerlikowske mentions that we must not live in the past and that we must move forward using the scientific research at our disposal. If that is the case, perhaps we should give up on this 100-year old failed strategy, which has killed thousands and continues to threaten the institutions of fragile states throughout Latin America. Let’s not cherry-pick the research we use—let’s look at the facts. The facts show that while demand continues, then there will always be a market. Why not take control of that market? And how about doing it now, before it is too late?