International Narcotics Law Enforcement: A Study in Irrationality

By Madsen, Frank G. | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

International Narcotics Law Enforcement: A Study in Irrationality

Madsen, Frank G., Journal of International Affairs

This year sees the celebration of the first century of international legal provisions against the illicit production and trade of narcotics substances. Accordingly, this is an appropriate moment to evaluate the results obtained. The following essay considers how the international prohibition regime created the crime of drug trafficking. The ensuing function of denied demand is the inescapable basis for the development of organized crime. Second, costs of the regime are critically assessed. The former include institutional costs of law enforcement and of the incarceration of individuals sentenced for drug trafficking and related offences, e.g., violence and financial crimes. The indirect costs are difficult to gauge and impossible to monetize. They include the immense suffering caused by drug trafficking as well as the deterioration of public services due to corruption. The present situation on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border is sufficiently eloquent evidence. Also, narcotics legislation leads to racial tension since the incarceration rates for non-whites for these offences is considerably higher than for whites in the United State and the United Kingdom. Third, political premises are briefly analyzed, namely the implementation of narcotics liaison offices in foreign jurisdictions and the linking of foreign aid and trade privileges to a certification of trade partners' adherence to U.S. antinarcotic drugs law enforcement. One might claim, somewhat counterintuitively, that decriminalization of drug trafficking is not necessary. Drug trafficking has already been decriminalized de facto, if not de jure, by the sheer, constant saturation of the market place.


Over the last forty years, international traffic in illicit narcotic drugs has given rise to a "dialogue" between so-called producer and consumer countries, which apportioned perceived responsibility for the availability of such drugs on the illegal markets in the developed world. The distinction between these two sets of countries became increasingly blurred by the production of synthetic--as opposed to natural--drugs in the developed world. Traditional producing countries, particularly in Central and South America, questioned what they saw as an attempt to export the moral responsibility for drug abuse in the developed world to producer countries. The somewhat simplistic reasoning by governments in the developed world was that without the production of narcotic drugs, there would be no abuse of such drugs; governments of developing countries, meanwhile, quite reasonably recommended that developed countries examine the reasons that drove the young in their relatively rich countries to the abuse of mind-altering or mind-numbing substances. (1)

The immense costs of the U.S.-driven enforcement strategy imposed on producing, transit, and developed countries has once again gradually reinforced the somewhat artificial dichotomy between producing and consuming countries. This has become an additional element in what can charitably be termed the 'dialogue of the deaf.' Recently, therefore, a number of producing and transit countries in Central and South America have begun questioning the very basis of international governmental narcotic drug policies. This has led to a considerable degrading of the relations between these countries and the United States. (2) Reconsidering international antinarcotic drug policies is therefore not only important, but also urgent. The fact that 2012 marks the centenary for the signature of the first international narcotics convention makes it all the more appropriate to survey and assess the considerable investments made. (3)

Unfortunately, the issue of international drug policy left the realm of rationality quite some time ago. As discussed below, experience and scholarship have exposed the failure of the international narcotics regime in practice as well as in theory. Despite this, supply-side interdiction efforts, which are ineffective as well as expensive in investment and in loss of human lives, continue unabated. …

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