WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
27 Jul 2022 | Commentary

U.S. Drug Policy Disconnect: Starting Harm Reduction at Home, Deep Into ‘Drug War’ Abroad

U.S. President Joe Biden’s national drug strategy, which includes a focus on harm reduction to respond to an overdose crisis at home, is at odds with the country’s ongoing “Drug War” in Latin America, which has perennially failed to curb drug supplies, at a huge cost in human lives.

A new report by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) argues that the global drug prohibition regime and the 50-year-long U.S.-led “war on drugs” has not only had disastrous results across the world but are increasingly exacerbating other serious problems. These include violence, corruption, organized crime, forced displacement and migration as well as forest loss and climate change.

Loosening Drug Prohibition’s Lethal Grip on the Americas indicates how moving away from a prohibitionist drug policy framework can contribute to easing harms caused by drugs and the drug trade.

The Biden administration’s historic embrace of harm reduction—along with state and local innovations around overdose prevention, drug decriminalization, and cannabis legalization—are big steps in the right direction. But the prohibitionist foundation of U.S. policy remains intact, and the drug war rages on in the Americas.

Half a century after Nixon declared the modern U.S. drug war, illegal drug production is booming and drugs remain readily available and more potent than ever within the United States.

“A ‘drug-free world’ has proven to be an impossible and dangerous illusion,” John Walsh, Director for Drug Policy at WOLA, said. “Trying to achieve it has enormously magnified drug harms, destroyed millions of lives with draconian punishments, and fueled devastating violence and human rights violations.”

“A ‘drug-free world’ has proven to be an impossible and dangerous illusion”, John Walsh, Director for Drug Policy at WOLA.

As Biden launched his successful bid for the presidency, the United States was already in the midst of its worst-ever drug overdose crisis, with more than 1 million overdose deaths since 2001, and the number of fatalities surpassing 107,000 in 2021.

In Latin America, the spread of the drug trade has meant further violence at the hands of governments and crime groups. In this context, marginalized communities continue to bear the brunt of repressive policies, including rising criminalization and incarceration for drug possession or low-level drug trade activities, with disproportionate impacts on people living in poverty, racial and ethnic minorities, indigenous communities, women, children, LGBTQI+ and other marginalized people.


U.S.-led efforts to eradicate the illegal drug trade have failed to confront the reality that the drug trade constitutes a crucial economic survival strategy for millions of people in Latin America and around the world—a de facto social safety net of the sort that national elites and governments themselves have proven unwilling or incapable of providing.

WOLA’s new report recognizes the formidable obstacles to reforms—technical, legal and above all political. But formidable doesn’t mean insurmountable. Long at the epicenter of the U.S.-led drug war, the people of Latin America and the Caribbean can play leading roles in the shift toward more humane and effective drug policies.

“The deep-roots of prohibition could lead us to think that reform may never happen. But the current regime arose at certain historical moment, is already fracturing, and shouldn’t be considered permanent,” John Walsh said. “Human beings used drugs long before prohibition, continue to do so now, and will do so after prohibition disappears. The answer is not more drug prohibition but a responsible transition to legal regulation.”

The rationale for transitioning to regulation is not that drugs are safe, but that drug use poses a range of risks and that governments should apply their regulatory tools to manage those risks to protect public health and safety. Regulatory models must prioritize the interests and inclusion of those communities most harmed by the punitive enforcement of drug prohibition. Such regulatory frameworks will be far better suited than prohibition to protecting human rights and promoting health, gender and racial equality, security and environmental sustainability.