The US has a hypocritical and downright offensive practice that is part of its national drug policy. It is called the “Majors List.” Required by law, each year the Administration must publish a list of major drug producing and transiting countries, and then determine whether or not countries are making substantial progress in improving their counter drug efforts.
The annual presidential determination on the Major’s List was published in mid-September. Twenty-two countries were determined to be major producers or transit countries. Of those, 17 are in Latin America or the Caribbean. The determination has ten paragraphs addressing specific countries, half of which are dedicated to Mexico. The Mexico section concludes with this warning, “Unless the Mexican government demonstrates substantial progress in the coming year backed by verifiable data, Mexico will be at serious risk of being found to have failed demonstrably to uphold its international drug control commitments.”
If countries are judged not to be trying hard enough, the US must cut off aid to that country, unless the continuation of aid is in the US national security interest.
Who is trying hard enough is always a political question. This year, Venezuela and Bolivia were found to be wanting, but both were given the national security waiver. Since the US has recognized Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela, they would technically have been cutting off aid, to his government, not the Maduro Administration, which actually controls drug policy. In practical terms that makes no sense. For years the government of Evo Morales in Bolivia rejected US assistance and developed its own rationale for control of coca leaf production as it is traditionally chewed as a mild stimulant, like coffee. But Morales is no longer president, clearing the way for a Bolivian drug strategy more consistent with the US vision. Not found to be wanting this year is Honduras whose President, Juan Orlando Hernandez, has been credibly linked to drug trafficking and whose brother was convicted in the US of drug trafficking just last year.
Furthermore, this process is the pot (the US) calling the kettle (other Latin American countries) black.
The title of World’s Biggest User is difficult to calculate because it depends on: the drug; the calculation method (per capita or total); the regularity of use (casual vs. lifetime user), etc. There is no escaping that the United States is high (pun intended) on the list and has a serious illicit drug problem.
If the US had fewer consumers, production and trafficking in other countries would be reduced.
What’s the US’s responsibility to countries impacted by its consumption? How often do we hear about the illicit drug trafficking that happens throughout the United States? It isn’t like all of our users wait at the ports of entry to pick up their drugs.
Then there is marijuana. While we judge the “progress” other countries are making to stop the trafficking of marijuana, medical marijuana is legal, in some form, in 47 of the US 50 states. Recreational marijuana is legal in 11 states and another 16 have decriminalized its use.
If we are going to look rationally at the illicit global drug problem we need to be a lot more honest about the problem and how the illicit businesses constructed around it work.
For example, how dangerous is the consumption of cannabis compared to legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco? Should we focus on the drugs causing the most harm? At the moment in the US that would be fentanyl. What about the impact of violence and corruption that accompany illicit businesses?
The Major’s List, based on a theory of change that sees the public shaming and threating and aid cut-off, doesn’t work. It creates diplomatic annoyance and hostility around a problem that can only be addressed through international cooperation.
If the US keeps the Majors List, I would like to see the countries of Latin America, like Mexico, who are currently being called out, start their own annual evaluation of how successful the United States is in dealing with its own illicit drug problem. That would be fair.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson