Conclusions and Consequences Abroad

Consequences of the War on Drugs™ Abroad

In 1996, Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control Chuck Grassley testified that a recent poll revealed that eighty percent of Americans viewed as their primary foreign policy concern the stopping of illegal drugs being trafficked into the United States. The Senator was responding to his own concerns that by elevating the importance of treatment, the Clinton Administration was not committed to the long-standing policy of aggressive interdiction as a guarantor of national security. The United States was at the time, and remains the world’s largest market for illegal drugs, with much of the supply coming from foreign nations such as Mexico, Afghanistan, Columbia, Peru, and China. As such, efforts at decreasing the supply of illicit substances have not been limited to domestic interdiction but have extended to attempts to disrupt production in other nations.

While such foreign policy often enjoys broad support domestically, it has had a profound negative impact on the nations involved at the other end. Indeed, as Foldvary (2013) observes, U.S. drug policy tends to exert a destabilizing effect that creates violent cartels, emboldens extant rebellious factions, foments drug-lord imperialism, and brings into being underground shadow states. The tools often employed in these failed efforts should look familiar to even the most casual observer of contemporary American foreign policy, including foreign aid, military and police assistance and training, intelligence and counterinsurgency operations, development schemes, and nation-building efforts (Pembleton & Weimer, 2019). Too often, the goals of the nations receiving this assistance are not completely aligned with domestic drug policy, fomenting even more instability. 

Plan Colombia provides an excellent snapshot of such destabilizing policy quagmires. This joint operation between Colombia and the United States had its roots in the struggle between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC), an armed guerilla group that was one of the major factions in an internecine conflict going back to 1964. In 1998, President Andrés Pastrana, hoping to gain their trust and aid in fostering peace, granted FARC a parcel of land roughly the size of Switzerland as a demilitarized zone in which military and law enforcement personnel would not enter (Rosen, 2021). FARC rewarded Pastrana’s good faith gesture by relocating their criminal operations – including kidnapping, extortion, illegal mining, and the production and trafficking of drugs to their newly granted autonomous region. 

Pastrana turned to the U.S. for help to end its internal conflict and the power that organized crime exerted over Colombia’s citizens. Unwilling to involve America in Colombia’s armed internal conflict, the Clinton Administration reoriented Pastrana’s Plan Colombia initiative to align with its own interests in ending the ability of Colombian guerillas and cartels to traffic drugs into the U.S. While Pastrana recognized the role of drug production in his nation’s instability, his initial concern was with containing FARC, which included manual destruction of their crops. In exchange for American financial aid, he eventually agreed to divert eighty percent of aid resources to strengthen police and military operations, which would subsequently play a critical role in protecting the aerial spraying of herbicides on coca crops.

There are conflicting views on whether these measures were effective at reducing supply. American officials claimed Colombian coca production decreased by seventy-five percent between 2001 and 2011, while United Nations observers reported an insignificantly negligible drop.  What isn’t in question is that Colombia had to work around American interests because it needed the help, and in 2007, then Colombian President Uribe guaranteed the Bush Administration’s continued cooperation by rebranding armed factions as narco-terrorists, aligning with American desires to combat both global drug supply chains and terrorism. While Uribe had some success in disrupting larger guerilla and criminal organizations, they were replaced with smaller ones that were more difficult to identify. Moreover, drug trafficking continued unabated, and increased counternarcotics units had somewhat of a balloon effect, pushing out a portion of production to neighboring states such as Peru and Panama, while increasing the importance of Mexico as a distribution and trafficking hub, exacerbating that nation’s own destabilizing issues related to American drug policy.

In a previous post, I noted that because the majority of drug production occurs outside of American borders, much of the violence seen occurs elsewhere, offshoring and hiding this very real human cost. Aligning with American interests did not work for Colombia in the 1980s, when attempts at capturing and extraditing popular drug lords were met with nationalist opposition which subsequently emboldened powerful traffickers to murder inconvenient government officials (Bagley, 1988). It is still not working today, with coca production having reached a historical peak in 2020, and the largest producers and traffickers being paramilitary groups who were trained and funded by the United States as part of the military operations against drugs. This violence and destabilization of society, and the expanding power of cartels and organized crime, is repeated throughout Central America, Mexico, Afghanistan, and other nations where the US exerts its hegemonic influence to prosecute its War on Drugs™.



I entitled this series A Brief Look at the Social Costs of Drug Prohibition, and despite it being somewhat lengthy, in comparison to the length of the continued conversations necessary regarding this matter, it is brief. This self-justifying set of policies, which aim at disrupting supply, simply cannot succeed so long as demand exists. Absent commitment to harm reduction avenues, demand has been, and will remain, stubbornly inelastic. Meanwhile, our prison system continues to expand, a center of perverse incentives revolving around cheap labor and political clout. To fill those prisons, police have become ever more like a military occupying force, too often focusing their efforts on already disadvantaged subgroups, helping to create the cycles of poverty, criminality, and recidivism they are ostensibly meant to help end. This criminalization of a public and mental health issue has resulted in more preventable deaths, as treatment is stigmatized and often not an option, while drug potency is increased in order to maintain profit margins. Not only is violence present in our own communities, but it pales in comparison to the violence and instability that domestic drug policy causes in nations where illicit entrepreneurs arise to meet our demand. Yet, with all of these costs imposed on society, supply and demand remain constant and unabated.


Tarnell Brown is an Atlanta based economist and public policy analyst.


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Consequences of the War on Drugs™ Abroad In 1996, Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control Chuck Grassley testified that a recent poll revealed that eighty percent of Americans viewed as their primary foreign policy concern the stopping of illegal drugs being trafficked into the United States. The Senator ...

Read More