By Stewart M. Patrick for Council of Foreign Relations. Having been frozen for four decades, a long-deferred debate over the “war on drugs” is finally heating up. Ever since the Nixon administration, the dominant paradigm informing U.S. and global policy towards narcotics has been prohibition. That failed approach is now being challenged by a slew of influential reports, path-breaking national policies in the Western Hemisphere, and state-level experiments within the United States. Just how turbulent the debate has become was clear at yesterday’s roundtable on the future of international drug policy, hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The United States will need to chart a new policy course if it hopes to retain credibility and influence as global attitudes toward drugs continue to evolve.

The U.S. law enforcement approach has focused on attacking sources of supply, interdicting shipments of drugs and incarcerating dealers. It has also targeted demand, imprisoning and fining addicts and casual users. And yet these repressive efforts have made little dent in the global drug trade. By artificially inflating profits, prohibition has only incentivized criminal activity. Traffickers have successfully shifted production sites and transit routes in response to crackdowns. Criminality, corruption and violence have destabilized vulnerable governments. Prison populations have swollen with addicts and casual users.  And yet drugs are cheaper and more available than ever before.

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Photo: Jorge Duenes/Reuters


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