WOLA’s John Walsh: Unwinding the Drug War will Require Being Candid About why the Anti-Drug Crusade has Failed so Badly
When Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take office in January 2020, they will inherit the human rights catastrophe known as the “war on drugs”—first declared by Richard Nixon nearly half a century ago. Over the decades, the drug war has become absorbed into the missions and budgets of myriad U.S. agencies. Any chance at reform, explains WOLA Director for Drug Policy and the Andes, John Walsh, in a new analysis for Responsible Statecraft, will require the incoming Biden-Harris administration to begin with “a clear-eyed appraisal of the scale of the drug war’s failures, and realism about its limitations and the harm it causes.”
Biden should urgently devote resources to domestic efforts to address the nation’s drug overdose crisis and deliberately lower expectations about what can be achieved on the supply side. Concretely, the new administration should move to retire the drug-certification process, which has proven to be worse than useless; stop U.S. support for forced crop eradication, including aerial herbicide spraying (‘”fumigation”); and prioritize U.S. support for tackling corruption and strengthening justice institutions in Latin America, recognizing that fortifying institutions will require long-term investments. Finally, the Biden administration should stay out of the way of other countries that decide to pursue more significant reforms, such as decriminalization of drug possession and cultivation for personal use, or legal regulation of cannabis markets.
Ultimately, winding down the drug war will require more far-reaching reforms than those currently on the U.S. agenda. At the very least, the Biden administration should avoid escalating the drug war it will inherit. And even if immediate reforms are modest compared to the enormity of the problem, Biden can make a lasting contribution by simply being honest about the limits and costs of overseas supply control.