The Failure of the War on Drugs (Dissertation)


“Prohibition… goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control mans’ appetite through legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not even crimes…” – Abraham Lincoln, 1840

The United States government has implemented federal laws that outlaw certain narcotics since the early 20th Century. The implementation of such policies is known as prohibitionism, and has been characterised by government suppression of the cultivation, manufacturing, trafficking and consumption of a number of drugs. This illegality was instituted into international law by the United Nations in 1961, and, since then, the United States has advocated this prohibitionism as a prominent part of its foreign policy agenda. This dissertation aims to identify and investigate the impacts of these policies upon basic human rights and security. In this context, ‘human rights’ are deemed to be the internationally recognised set of rights outlined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. ‘Security’ is perceived as the safety and survival of the state or governing body; in this context, national security and regional security are encompassed by this term. In this dissertation it will be argued that prohibitionism has directly caused a severe deterioration of human rights and national security.

US prohibitionist policy has taken a number of forms, including the support for militarised counter-narcotic endeavours. This policy has caused extreme intrastate violence in Latin America, particularly evident with the conflation of terrorism and drug trafficking. This militarisation of prohibitionism is explored throughout this dissertation, and may be considered to be the reasoning behind the word ‘war’ in the idiom ‘the War on Drugs’; a phrase coined by Richard Nixon when state violence against drug traffickers began to develop.

To analyse the effectiveness of prohibitionism, it is essential to investigate the origins of such policy. Chapter One will involve an investigation into the roots of domestic prohibitionist policies in the United States, as these were the principal laws upon which global prohibitionist regulations were based. Subsequently, this chapter will focus on the transition of prohibitionism into international law, and will provide an explanation and analysis of how the United States government was, and continues to be, the primary driver of the intensification of the War on Drugs, particularly in Latin America. The primary argument put forward by this chapter will be that prohibitionism originated from a bigoted and oppressive rationale, and that these connotations continued as it progression into the international realm. It will also be argued that this discriminatory foundation is partially responsible for the inherent flaws within contemporary international prohibitionism.

The proximity of Latin America to the United States has allowed the former to become the primary cultivation region of the two most prevalent illegal drugs used by Americans: marijuana and cocaine. In the 1980s, Colombia emerged as the predominant producing nation in the hemisphere, and Mexico became the principal transit route of illegal drugs into the US. Since, Colombia and Mexico play vital roles in the drug trade, Chapter Two and Three will analyse the important, but distinctly heterogeneous, impacts that the War on Drugs has had upon human rights and security in these two nations respectively. Chapter Two addresses prohibitionism in Colombia; analysing the success of policies – including crop fumigation and the conflation of counter-narcotic and counter-terror efforts – and the repercussions upon the government and citizens. In contrast, Chapter Three will address the widespread corruption and empowerment of cartels that have resulted from prohibitionism in Mexico, as well as assessing the effectiveness of US involvement in the nation. These case studies are used to argue that prohibitionism, particularly the militarisation of drug policy, has caused severe destabilisation to both Colombia and Mexico’s national security, as well as a marked increase in human rights abuses; fuelling social, economic and political instability in both a local and regional context.

Following this disclosure and scrutiny of the consequences of prohibitionism, Chapter Four will outline an alternative framework for controlling drugs. The concepts of legalisation and decriminalisation will be defined, and the potential for their successwill be considered by referring to recent examples of drug policy reform, as well as theoretical perspectives. This chapter will put forward the argument that a legal and regulated system for the cultivation, distribution and consumption of drugs is superior to prohibitionism for the protection of human rights and national security. Additionally, it will be argued that legalisation is the most appropriate course of action at both the national and international level.


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