NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Drug War Has Failed at Home and Abroad

July 16, 2003

America's 30 year-old campaign against the supply of illegal drugs has failed, says Cato Institute scholar Ted Galen Carpenter in a new book, "Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington's Futile War on Drugs in Latin America."

Despite intense efforts to eliminate drugs at their source (including crop eradication programs, crop substitution, and persuading or coercing officials in Latin America to crack down on drug traffickers), drug production has increased, street prices have dropped, and the global market for illicit drugs is thriving. According to Carpenter:

  • A pure gram of heroin sold for $1,000 in 2001, down from $5,000 in 1981.
  • Though cocaine production has dropped in Bolivia and Peru, it jumped from 65 to 580 metric tons in Colombia between 1993 and 2000.
  • In 1991, Latin American officials only managed to eradicate 6,538 hectares of land used to cultivate coca, out of a total drug-crop area of 212,778 hectares.
  • More than 60 percent of the inmates in federal prisons and 25 percent of those in state prisons are jailed for drug offenses.

Furthermore, the War on Drugs has aggravated political violence and increased corruption in countries like Colombia, and now Mexico is beginning to witness similar effects, says Carpenter.

The only way to reverse these negative trends, he explains, is for the United States to abandon its prohibitionist strategy and legalize illicit drugs, regulating them like alcohol and tobacco. Drug legalization would reduce the profit motive for drug traffickers, eliminate drug-related inner city violence, lessen the burden on prisons, deprive terrorist organizations of an important source of revenue, and free up billions of tax dollars to fight terrorism.

Source: Ted Galen Carpenter, "Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington's Futile War on Drugs in Latin America," Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, Cato Institute.


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