National Security

War on Drugs: The Battlefield is Changing

By Thomas Armbruster

A disclaimer.  For me, any discussion on drugs brings me back to a Nuevo Laredo, Mexico backyard of a purported drug dealer.  That is where Mexican authorities, at my request as Consul General, exhumed the bodies of two Americans.  One was implicated in narco-trafficking, one was a teenaged girl at the wrong place with the wrong guy.  They had been tortured and murdered.  She was raped, he was buried alive.  From then on, I have 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 is hard not to see it as a real threat.

According to Gallup polls, most Americans do not agree.  Gallup puts illegal drugs toward the bottom of American concerns, with the economy coming in first, followed by terrorism and concerns about government effectiveness.  The problem, drug trafficking is also connected to human trafficking, arms smuggling, money laundering and terrorism.  Gallup does see some movement on the issue.  What Gallup finds is a societal shift that you have surely already noted.  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, taking drug money away from narco cartels and capturing some of the drug money in local revenues through 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. 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.

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 have 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.

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 has not 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 have had too few 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.

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.  If the marijuana potency is under 15%, find ways to tax it, reduce demand for it, make it less glamorous and educate kids.  Use soft power to steer kids in the right direction.  And do not fool yourself into thinking as long as it is illegal, there are no consequences for marijuana use.  There are still plenty.

Thomas Armbruster is an OpsLens Contributor and 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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