Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

The War on Drugs and Uncle Sam's Big Stick

On June 6, 1998, a surprising letter was delivered to Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations. ``We believe,'' the letter declared, ``that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself.''

The letter was signed by statesmen, politicians, academics and other public figures. Former UN secretary general Javier Perez de Cuellar signed. So did George Shultz, the former American secretary of state, and Joycelyn Elders, the former American surgeon general. Nobel laureates such as Milton Friedman and Argentina's Adolfo Perez Esquivel added their names. Four former presidents and seven former cabinet ministers from Latin American countries signed. And several eminent Canadians were among the signatories.

The drug policies the world has been following for decades are a destructive failure, they said. Trying to stamp out drug abuse by banning drugs has only created an illegal industry worth $400 billion U.S. ``or roughly eight per cent of international trade.'' The letter continued: ``This industry has empowered organized criminals, corrupted governments at all levels, eroded internal security, stimulated violence, and distorted both economic markets and moral values.'' And it concluded that these were the consequences ``not of drug use per se, but of decades of failed and futile drug war policies.''

This powerful statement landed on Mr. Annan's desk just as the United Nations was holding a special assembly on global drug problems. Going into that meeting, the governments of the world appeared all but unanimous in the belief that the best way to combat drug abuse was to ban the production, sale or possession of certain drugs. Drug prohibition, most governments feel, makes harmful substances less available to people and far more expensive than they would otherwise be. Combined with the threat of punishment for using or selling drugs, prohibition significantly cuts the number of people using these substances, thus saving them from the torment of addiction and reducing the personal and social harms drugs can inflict. For these governments -- and probably for most people in most countries -- drug prohibition is just common sense.

Still, the letter to Mr. Annan showed that this view is far from unanimous. In fact, a large and growing number of world leaders and experts think the war on drugs is nothing less than a humanitarian disaster.

Yet, governments are all but unanimous in supporting drug prohibition. There is little debate at the official level. It's not easy to imagine alternatives to a policy that has been in place for decades, especially when few people remember how the policy came into being in the first place, or why. ``War on drugs'' is a compelling sound bite, whereas the damage drug prohibition may do is complex and impossible to summarize on a bumper sticker.

But the core reason the ``war on drugs'' completely dominates the official policies of so many nations, including our own, is simple: The United States insists on it.

The ``international'' war on drugs is a policy conceived, created and enforced by the government of the United States of America. Originally, nations were cajoled, prodded or bullied into joining it. Then it became international orthodoxy, and today most national governments, including Canada's, are enthusiastic supporters of prohibition. To the extent that they debate drug policy at all, it is only to question how strictly or harshly prohibition should be enforced, not whether the basic idea is sound.

The few officials and governments that do stray, even slightly, outside the prohibition orthodoxy are cajoled, manipulated, or bullied to get back in. The U.S. government does everything it can to prevent the views of conscientious objectors being heard.


Drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and opium are linked in modern minds to organized crime, street violence and junkies wasting away in crack dens. But they weren't always thought of this way. These drugs were used for centuries, even millennia, before they were criminalized in the 20th century. Like alcohol today, they were produced, sold and purchased legally. And like alcohol, the producers and sellers of these drugs were usually ordinary merchants and companies that conducted their business according to the laws of the day. They fought for market share with advertisements and settled disputes with lawsuits, like any other business.

These legal markets for drugs clearly had their harms. As in every age and every society, a small minority of the people who used what are now illegal drugs became addicted and suffered. But the legal availability of what are now illegal drugs did not create burgeoning plagues of drug addiction any more than the legal availability of alcohol today has spawned an epidemic of alcoholism.

For many well-intentioned activists of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, that wasn't good enough. Agitation for bans on various drugs grew in several countries, including Canada, where anti-Chinese racism in British Columbia was expressed in wild myths about the Chinese practice of opium-smoking, leading to a ban on opium in 1911.

But it was in the U.S., where the Puritan dream of building a morally righteous ``City on the Hill'' has always been a potent social force, that anti-drug activism took its strongest hold. The first goal was banning alcohol, but many in the American temperance movement had even grander designs. William Jennings Bryan, a former secretary of state and a pioneer in the push to ban alcohol and other drugs, insisted in 1919, when alcohol was about to be made illegal, that the U.S. must ``export the gift of Prohibition to other countries, turning the whole world dry.'' In 1900, Reverend W.S. Crafts, an official in the Roosevelt administration, had called for an even broader ``international civilizing crusade against alcohol and drugs.''

Most of the early crusaders who wanted alcohol, opium, cocaine and other drugs banned genuinely believed this would end drug problems: Simply make drugs illegal and no one would sell, buy or use them. There would be no more addiction, crime would fall, and drugs would be an unhappy memory. As the American preacher Billy Sunday joyously proclaimed when the U.S. banned alcohol in 1920, ``The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and children will laugh.''

To the surprise of the pioneers of prohibition, people didn't stop using drugs just because the law told them to. Banning drugs only succeeded in stopping legitimate companies from supplying these substances. That left the business of meeting people's drug demands to criminals.

In 1920, when alcohol was banned in the U.S., a rich and powerful criminal class was spawned. And with it came a stupendous rise in violence and corruption. Gangsters protected themselves from the law by buying off officials at every level. They fought for market share not with advertisements but guns. They settled disagreements not with lawsuits but murders. And since they couldn't be sued or supervised by government regulators, gangsters and smugglers often provided alcohol that was adulterated or even poisonous, killing tens of thousands and leaving more blind or paralysed.

These developments shocked Americans. Just 13 years after the U.S. Constitution had been amended to create Prohibition, it was changed again to legalize alcohol.

But other drugs, which had been banned only gradually with few apparent repercussions due to the vastly lower demand for them, were not legalized. Instead, the energy of the American anti-alcohol campaign turned on them. Under the leadership of Harry Anslinger, Prohibition agent turned anti-narcotics chief, the American government expanded its bans on drugs at home and took up the ``international civilizing crusade'' with zeal.


The precedent for international drug prohibition had been set in conferences in 1909 and 1911. At the time, a few nations, notably Canada and Britain, were interested in international regulation of opium, but it was the United States that instigated these conferences and prodded the talks away from mere regulation toward total criminal prohibition. The First World War delayed this process before prohibition could be made internationally mandatory, however. American plans were further hampered in the inter-war period by the refusal of the U.S. to join the League of Nations.

When the Second World War ended, everything changed. ``It was only in 1945 that the United States within the international community had the political clout to internationalize these ideas of prohibition,'' says David Bewley-Taylor, a professor at the University of Wales and author of The United States and International Drug Control, 1909-1997. The U.S., which dominated the United Nations, tried to ensure that drug prohibition as the American government envisioned it would be a central part of the UN agenda.

Several international protocols were signed in the 1940s and 1950s. The U.S. also worked behind the scenes to internationalize its prohibition efforts -- sometimes using questionable pressure tactics. Charles Siragusa, an American narcotics agent during the early years of international prohibition, noted in his 1966 memoirs that foreign police ``almost always worked willingly with us. It was their superiors in government who were sometimes unhappy that we had entered their countries. Most of the time, though, I found that a casual mention of the possibility of shutting off our foreign aid programs, dropped in the proper quarters, brought grudging permission for our operations almost immediately.''

The use of foreign aid as leverage in expanding American drug policies was occasionally made explicit. The 1984 National Drug Strategy for Prevention of Drug Abuse and Drug Trafficking stated that ``U.S. decisions on foreign aid and other matters'' should be ``tied to the willingness of the recipient country to execute vigorous enforcement programs against narcotic traffickers.'' It was not an idle threat.

In 1980, the U.S. suspended most foreign aid to Bolivia when it deemed the Bolivian government unresponsive to American concerns about cocaine.

Major UN conventions on drugs passed in 1961, 1971 and 1988. These conventions, now the basic international laws of drug prohibition, were all initiated by the government of the U.S.

``I was there when they were beginning the process of drafting the 1988 international convention,'' says Ethan Nadelmann, a onetime employee of the U.S. State Department's Narcotics Bureau. Mr. Nadelmann, also a former professor at Princeton University and now director of the Lindesmith Centre in New York, is one of America's foremost critics of the war on drugs. ``It was based on (U.S.) federal legislation to a great extent. Then it gets re-vamped and reworked but it's heavily, heavily influenced by U.S. drafters.''

Today, almost every nation has signed the UN conventions. Yet it's important to remember that international drug prohibition came together only gradually, in steps, over decades. Whether prohibition should be the basic method of dealing with drug problems has never been seriously debated at the international level.

The object of American policy today is not only to have nations committed to its general approach of drug prohibition. As Charles Siragusa's memoirs show, the U.S. has long attempted to carry out its anti-drug activities in other countries and to have its favoured policies and programs implemented abroad. It has also worked doggedly to block other countries from trying any drug policy not in line with its own strict-prohibition approach.

Formally, at least, the key instrument of American influence is the ``certification'' process. Acting under a 1986 directive from the U.S. Congress, the president, through the State Department, each year reports on the level of co-operation and effort other nations are putting into anti-drug measures. Countries whose efforts are approved are ``certified''; those deemed deficient are ``decertified.'' Decertification can result in economic sanctions, international isolation, even an end to American foreign aid. For Third World countries, that would be a disaster. Not surprisingly, the U.S. report, which is released in March, is always preceded by a flurry of drug crackdowns and anti-drug initiatives in targeted nations. Mexicans call it the ``February surprise.''

These efforts to curry American favour are meant to avoid the fate of Colombia. Decertified in the mid-1990s, Colombia under President Ernesto Samper spun into political crisis even though the full force of American economic sanctions wasn't used. Colombia was forced to abandon other priorities and launch a furious attack on drug trafficking. Many experts feel it was that switch of priorities that weakened the central government, damaged the economy and, ultimately, allowed Colombia's rebels to seize 40 per cent of the nation's territory. These developments in turn led to spectacular increases in drug production and even greater instability.

Even Canada has been caught in the certification process. In 1999, State Department officials considered placing this country on the ``majors'' list of nations considered top sources of drugs entering the U.S.

That didn't happen, but the 1999 certification report, released in March of this year, did include serious criticism of this country. The U.S. approved of the latest Canadian drug laws and police tactics but claimed these ``efforts have been undermined in numerous cases by court decisions.'' The State Department, for instance, specifically criticized the Supreme Court of Canada for having ``questioned the legality of `sting'-type operations, undercover `buys' and other techniques now commonly used around the world in drug investigations ... '' Robert Metzger, the chief judge of the B.C. provincial court, was so angered by the American report that he took the unusual step of publicly berating the Americans, telling the Vancouver Sun, ``They don't seem to have a handle on their own problems. I don't see why they should be criticizing us for ours.''

The Clinton administration dislikes the certification process. Instead, the White House prefers the direction taken in something called the Memorandum of Understanding and Evaluation, which the Organization of American States signed last October largely at the behest of Barry McCaffrey, who heads the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy. It commits member-states, including Canada, to a set of enforcement standards and evaluation mechanisms. In effect, the OAS will now assess and report on its members' efforts in much the same way certification does. Robert Weiner, chief of press relations in the White House drug office, calls the OAS evaluation system ``a huge step forward.'' It shows, Mr. Weiner says, that ``we're big on international co-operation, and it's blossoming.''

More disquieting than high-level American policies is the use of quiet pressure tactics. One such tactic was used in Australia in 1996.

For the most part, Australia has followed the orthodox drug policies favoured by the U.S., but high levels of heroin addiction, along with the threat of AIDS, have fostered a strong movement in Australia toward the so-called ``harm reduction'' approach. This is the idea that the top goal of drug policy shouldn't necessarily be to reduce drug use, but to reduce the harms done by drug use -- even if that requires easing the ban on drug possession. One harm-reduction policy is ``heroin maintenance,'' in which serious heroin addicts who haven't been able to break their addiction are prescribed legal heroin. Heroin maintenance has been shown in some studies to lead to dramatic decreases in deaths by overdose and in crimes committed by addicts. There have been equally dramatic increases in health and employment. With their lives in some semblance of order, addicts are often better able to voluntarily reduce their drug use and even kick their addiction -- both of which happen at far greater rates than without heroin maintenance.

Australia began considering a heroin maintenance trial project in the early 1990s. By 1996, it was a serious proposal being reviewed by several committees of health experts.

That year, Bill Clinton's top international drug enforcer, Bob Gelbard, flew to the Australian state of Tasmania. Officially, Mr. Gelbard went to inspect the state's opium poppy industry, an operation licensed by the UN to produce morphine and codeine for medical use. While in Tasmania, Mr. Gelbard invited the members of a state committee considering the heroin maintenance trial to speak with him.

Dr. David Pennington, a respected Australian expert on drugs and the chair of the committee meeting with the American, recalls that Mr. Gelbard was ``very courteous'' but emphatic that it would be a terrible mistake for Australia to deviate from ``the straight, hard-line position.'' Mr. Gelbard, says Dr. Pennington, made it ``clear that the State Department considered this issue an absolutely critical one.''

Mr. Gelbard, he says, also mentioned Tasmania's opium poppy industry, worth $160 million (Aus) per year. He ``pointed out that Australia was allowed by (the UN) to have its poppy industry in Tasmania,'' says Dr. Pennington. And ``if (the UN) were to decide that Australia were not a reliable country, that of course that industry could be at risk.'' The American, notes Dr. Pennington, avoided saying explicitly that an unwelcome decision would jeopardize the industry. ``On the other hand, it was a very heavy hint.''

Nonetheless, Dr. Pennington's committee recommended the heroin trial go ahead. So did a federal committee made up of top health and police officials from across Australia.

But in 1997, after heavy lobbying from the frightened poppy industry and the government of Tasmania, the Australian federal cabinet rejected the advice of the expert committees. The cabinet said it would ``send the wrong message'' about drug use.

The State Department was asked by the Citizen to comment on these events. A State Department official said it could not provide a response because several years had passed and the officials involved had changed employment. Mr. Gelbard, who is now the American ambassador to Indonesia, declined to comment.

Oblique pressure tactics have also come into play in the critical drug-producing states of Latin America.

There is considerable opposition to drug prohibition in Latin America, as evidenced by the signatures of numerous Latin American presidents, ministers, and other officials on the 1988 protest letter sent to Kofi Annan. Many Latin Americans feel the U.S.-led war on drugs has hurt their countries deeply, by creating powerful drug cartels that corrupt their governments, destabilize their economies and spread bloody mayhem in their streets. Alejo Vargas, vice-rector of the National University of Colombia, voiced this view bitterly to the Los Angeles Times: ``The United States does not care if we all kill each other. What matters to them is that we get rid of the drug crops.''

Still, there is virtually no serious official opposition to American policies. Senior Latin American officials do often, and publicly, criticize what they see as an exaggerated American emphasis on drug supply rather than on domestic drug demand. But they virtually never criticize the core policy of prohibition.

In part, this false unanimity stems from the old fears of losing American foreign aid and trade access. But another reason is hinted at in the 1998 protest letter itself: All the senior government officials who signed were ``the former president of Colombia,'' ``the former president of Costa Rica,'' and so on. Only those whose careers are all but over seem willing to question the core idea behind American drug policy.

The Latin American elites who dominate their governments have close business, educational and social ties with the U.S. For Colombia's elite, Miami is practically a second capital. To be refused a visa to the United States is to have careers, even social lives, crippled. Monica de Greiff, a former Colombian justice minister, says it's even a black mark on one's name at home. ``If you don't have a visa, (people) will say, `Um, why don't you have a visa? You must be doing something wrong if you don't have a visa.' ''

One of those who says he has felt the effects of this weapon is Gustavo de Greiff, the father of Monica de Greiff. As Colombia's prosecutor general in the early 1990s, Gustavo de Greiff was renowned in his own country and the U.S. for his success in hunting and prosecuting drug traffickers. Yet at the height of this fame, he publicly declared the drug war to be futile and destructive. His formerly close relations with the U.S. immediately soured, he says. Not long after, the U.S. accused Mr. de Greiff of corruption. Ultimately, he lost his American visa. (Mr. de Greiff's full story appears tomorrow).

The State Department denies that the U.S. retaliates against dissenting Latin American officials. In a written response to the Citizen, an official stated: ``Our law provides that if we have persuasive evidence that somebody is complicit in the commission of a number of types of crimes, one of which is drug trafficking, he doesn't get a visa to enter the United States. This is never done because somebody is critical.''

Monica de Greiff doesn't accept this. She says the fear of losing an American visa stunts democratic dialogue in South American. ``I feel that now ... the idea of legalization is bigger, it's spreading (in Colombia),'' she says. But ``people, because of what happened for example to my father, they will never, never take a strong position on that, even if they talk privately about it.''

Robert Weiner, the White House drug spokesman, dismisses suggestions that Latin American officials fear criticizing the war on drugs. ``You work together and that's what we're doing.'' He says there is open Latin American criticism of his government's policies, citing the Colombian rebel army known as FARC, which ``is railing and ranting and raving about the fact that we're threatening their country. The reality is we are threatening their drug production because they're the ones doing the producing -- and we're proud of that one.

``So you've got to watch where the publicity for that kind of mode comes from. Sometimes it's propaganda from the people who don't want you to do anything about drugs and there's a huge amount of drug funding out there.''


Despite the American goal of universal support for drug prohibition, a few countries have taken slightly different directions. Holland is the most famous of these.

Holland is a signatory to international prohibition agreements and continues to aggressively fight most forms of drug-trafficking. But since the mid-1970s, the Dutch have made it possible to possess marijuana and sell it in tightly regulated shops. Possession of small amounts of other drugs is also not normally punished. ``Harm reduction'' programs, such as providing clean needles to heroin addicts, are central in Dutch policy.

For taking this route, Holland has been fiercely attacked. In a series of statements in 1998, Barry McCaffrey, the White House ``drug czar,'' savaged Dutch policy. Dutch teenagers used marijuana at three times the rate of American teens, Mr. McCaffrey claimed. ``The murder rate in Holland is double that in the United States. The per capita crime rates are much higher than the United States ... that's drugs.'' The Dutch approach, he said, was ``an unmitigated disaster.''

None of what he said was true.

While figures vary from study to study, most research shows that far fewer Dutch teenagers use marijuana than do American teens. The American murder rate is actually four-and-a-half times higher than the Dutch rate. And while the ``unmitigated disaster'' claim is vague, it seems unsupportable given that the rate of heroin abuse -- considered a key drug indicator -- is nearly three times higher in the U.S. than in Holland. The Dutch government officially protested Mr. McCaffreys remarks.

Subtler forms of pressure and influence are used by the U.S. in a forum that is central to international drug policy: The United Nations.

The UN has two main bodies that control international drug policies and programs: the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) and the United Nations International Drug Control Program (UNDCP). The INCB, made up of 13 people, monitors compliance with international agreements on drugs. The UNDCP handles the UN's drug programs.

Many of the public health officials interviewed for this article identified the INCB as being most active in enforcing strict prohibition. This view is supported by the Australian incident in 1996, when U.S. State Department official Bob Gelbard made his ``very strong hint'' that were Australia to go ahead with a heroin maintenance trial, its opium poppy industry might have its licence revoked. It is the INCB that has that power.

More recent events in Australia strengthen the idea of the INCB as enforcer. Australia has also been working toward the creation of ``safe injection rooms'' -- clean, medically supervised sites where heroin addicts can inject heroin without fear of arrest. The U.S. strongly opposes such projects. In November, 1999, the INCB warned the Australians that if they went ahead, the INCB might embargo Tasmania's opium poppy industry -- exactly the same ``hint'' made by the U.S. State Department in 1996.

``The American influence on the narcotics board is overwhelming and unfortunate,'' the minister of health for the Australian Capital Territory, Michael Moore, told the Canberra Times.

Dr. David Pennington agrees. ``INCB has throughout been led by the policies of the U.S. State Department.''

The State Department said it was unable to comment on these events.

A former senior official with the UNDCP cited numerous instances of American interference with that body as well. The former official spoke on condition of anonymity, saying the American government might pressure the person's national government to ostracize the official by, for example, blocking appointments to drug policy committees or obstructing access to research information.

Interfering in appointments to the UN drug bodies is one method of control the U.S. exerts, the former official says. ``They don't interfere for their own people at low levels, they're not interested. They're only interested in the top jobs.

``Policy is another matter. They will interfere with policy, all the way along.''

The UN's World Health Organization was subjected to intense U.S. pressure when it commissioned a report on cocaine use in the early 1990s. Two years of research involving dozens of experts in 22 cities and 19 countries led to a finished report in 1995. On March 15 of that year, the WHO issued a news release announcing the publication of the results. The project, the WHO proudly noted in the news release, was the ``the largest global study on cocaine use ever undertaken.''

But the WHO never issued the report.

WHO spokesperson Gregoyr Hartl says that after the news release was issued, the organization asked a number of experts to peer-review the report. After ``two to three years,'' some of the experts reported back and the WHO decided the report was ``technically unsound'' -- despite the fact that in 1995, responding to complaints from the U.S., the WHO had defended the report as ``important and objective.'' The WHO has no plans to do further research on cocaine.

The unreleased document, a copy of which was obtained by the Citizen, is critical of existing drug policies and many of the beliefs about cocaine that support those policies. Among its startling conclusions:

- ``Occasional cocaine'' use, not ``intensive'' or ``compulsive'' consumption, is ``the most typical pattern of cocaine use.''

- ``Most participating countries agree that occasional cocaine use does not typically lead to severe or even minor physical or social problems.''

- The chewing of coca leaves by South American aboriginals ``appears to have no negative health effects and has positive, therapeutic, sacred and social functions ... ''

- Educational materials on cocaine tend to be ``superficial, lurid, excessively negative ... ''

- Public education campaigns often promote ``myths and stereotypes about the nature and extent of cocaine-related health effects.''

- ``Most countries believe there needs to be more assessment of the adverse effects of current drug policies and strategies.''

- ``Education, treatment and rehabilitation programs should be increased to counterbalance the current over-reliance on law-enforcement measures.''

According to the former UNDCP official, this landmark report was withheld because the U.S. pressed the WHO to bury it. If it was released, American officials warned, the U.S. would pull its funding from the section of WHO responsible for the report. The U.S. State Department told the Citizen it was unable to comment on this allegation.

However, WHO spokesperson Gregory Hartl confirms that this threat was made. In a May 1995 meeting, according to the WHO's records, Neil Boyer, the American representative to the organization, ``took the view that ... (the WHO's) program on substance abuse was headed in the wrong direction.''

As proof, Mr. Boyer cited the cocaine study, along with ``evidence of WHO's support for harm-reduction programs and previous WHO association with organizations that supported the legalization of drugs.''

Mr. Boyer concluded that ``if WHO activities relating to drugs failed to reinforce proven drug-control approaches, funds for the relevant programs should be curtailed.''

Knowing the perils of crossing the U.S., UN officials take great care if they feel they must. The former UNDCP official cites the case of a Brazilian needle-exchange -- another ``harm reduction'' policy which the U.S. has opposed -- funded by the UNDCP and the World Bank. ``We just had to keep it quiet, we had to keep it from the knowledge of the Americans.''

Australia's Dr. Pennington thinks public health officials around the world are increasingly dissenting from a status quo that sees criminal prohibition as central to drug policy. Friction is growing, he believes, between officials who want to try novel approaches, such as harm reduction methods, and the American government, with its insistence on sticking strictly to the war on drugs.

That conflict has yet to seriously break into the international political arena. But if the growing opposition to the war on drugs starts to find a voice among senior world leaders -- as the 1998 protest letter to Kofi Annan showed it might -- it will be increasingly difficult for the American government to cajole, manipulate or bully other countries.

Some day, the nations of the world may finally hold an open debate on the wisdom of international drug prohibition.