America’s War on Drugs Amid a Changing Battlefield

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For me personally, any discussion on drugs brings back memories of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, a major hub for drug dealers. That’s where Mexican authorities, at my request as the U.S. Consul General, exhumed the bodies of two Americans, one implicated in narco-trafficking, and the other was a teenage girl at the wrong place with the wrong guy. Both had been tortured and murdered. She was raped, he was buried alive. From then on, I’ve never seen drugs as a “victimless crime.” There are victims up and down the border because the trafficking inevitably brings violence. It also brings corruption, leaving the police force on the Mexican side of the border completely ineffectual. Successful investigations and prosecutions of any crime are rare as the police become simply uniformed members of the cartel. Once you see the toll drug trafficking has on a community, it’s hard not to see it as a real threat.

From taboo to wider social acceptance

According to a Gallup poll, however, most Americans don’t agree. Gallup puts illegal drugs towards the bottom of American concerns, with the economy coming in first, followed by terrorism and concerns about government effectiveness. The problem is that drug trafficking is also connected to human trafficking, arms smuggling, money laundering, and terrorism. Gallup does see some movement on the issue. Through the Gallup polling we see a reflection of the tectonic societal shift taking place regarding Americans’ views about drugs and drug policy.


Opinion polls show a tectonic societal shift taking place regarding Americans’ views about drugs and drug policy.

In the U.S., legalizing marijuana has gone from about 12 % support in 1970 to a majority today. Twenty five states have legalized marijuana to some degree. That trend makes sense, as many hold favorable views regarding the idea of taking drug money away from narco cartels and capturing some of that money through local taxes. But as the U.S. makes this “correction” on the war on drugs and legalizes marijuana, we should look at the total drug policy, understand why drugs remain a threat to national security, and craft a policy that makes sense. And as with all wars, there has to be public support to win, so we need to choose our battles carefully.

Why are drugs a threat? First, the simple economic argument. We are in a global marketplace, so we as workers compete with everyone else. The healthier, more educated we are as a population, the more competitive we are on the global labor scene. With the demand for drugs comes crime and violence, another drain on our national coffers, siphoning resources that could be better spent elsewhere. While the U.S. has focused heavily on reducing supply, efforts to reduce demand, especially among young people, are lagging and would be money well spent. No wall will keep drugs out of the country and it is impossible to check every incoming truck or container. At best, we will ever only interdict a tiny fraction of incoming illegal narcotics. So reducing demand is the key.

Even legal drugs have adverse consequences

Legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana still has complications. The National Institute on Drug Abuse cites research that marijuana use impairs drivers and use can lead to fatal accidents. Unfortunately, THC levels  can remain in the body for weeks, so tying an accident to recent impairment is not as easy as with a breathalyzer test for alcohol. And Holland, once one of the most liberal countries on drugs, has found that marijuana is coming in with THC levels of 15% and they have had to classify that as a hard drug due to its potency. One of the lessons is that drug policy will always be a moving target, as drugs evolve to meet demand.

Police forces in America are also overburdened and taking away minor marijuana offenses from their “to do” list may make sense. But the police are also prime targets of drug dealers for corruption and violence. For that reason, America’s traditionally strong stand with respect to going after cop killers must stand. I’ve seen what can happen when there is complete impunity and disrespect for the law. If the police are vulnerable, the entire justice system breaks down, so making it a capital offense to kill a federal or local law enforcement official is a good deterrent. This is not to say community policing and other reforms are not needed to reduce acts of police violence, it is just a reminder that in this country the police, while not always right, are on the public’s side and are in the business of protecting us and not cartels.

Holland, once one of the most liberal countries on drugs, has found that marijuana is coming in with THC levels of 15% and they have had to classify that as a hard drug due to its potency.

The human toll of drug use is another reason to focus on reducing demand. Just as alcohol can ruin lives, so can drug use. Rehabilitation programs are important, but so is leadership from Washington. President Obama has talked about the “disease of addiction,” and likened it more as a health problem than a criminal problem. But he hasn’t taken the case to young people, to tell them that sports, the arts, computers, anything really, is a better pastime than drugs. Role models matter and we’ve had too few lately speaking up on the issue.

The link between drug money and terrorism is also firm. We know terrorist organizations use drug money to finance operations, so that innocent nickel bag of marijuana does come with blood on it. Perhaps that is another factor in favor of legalizing marijuana, since the legal entities would presumably not be linked to criminal and terrorist organizations.

And finally, we need to be hard on the hard stuff, easier on the soft stuff. So strong rehab programs, stiff penalties for cartel leaders and their minions, strong interdiction, and increased international cooperation to offer alternatives to growers of coca and opium need to be in place. If the marijuana potency is under 15%, we must find ways to tax it, reduce demand for it, make it less glamorous. We must also use soft power to steer kids in the right direction. Everyone must be informed that marijuana may not be illegal, but there are still adverse consequences of marijuana use – plenty of adverse consequences to be exact.

About Thomas Armbruster 24 Articles
Thomas Armbruster is a columnist for The GeoStrategists. He is the former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.
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