Reducing Drug Demand: Not a Magic Bullet

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Those seeking an alternative to the war on drugs often call for a shift in focus: from reducing supply, to reducing demand. However, it’s not clear that such a change would have a massive impact on organized crime in Latin America.

At a security conference in Guatemala in June, Mexican President ·Felipe Calderon called on the U.S. to “reduce the demand for drugs, prohibit the sale of weapons and increase international cooperation, not in a symbolic way … but in a real way.”

This opinion is also frequently voiced in the U.S., which, in the most recent report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, was given in its customary label as the world’s biggest consumer of drugs. As the co-chairs of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2009, “In order to drastically reduce the harm caused by narcotics, the long-term solution is to reduce demand for drugs in the main consumer countries.”

The reasons for the focus on demand are clear. Economically speaking, supply responds to demand; therefore, the best way to eliminate the multi-billion dollar illegal drug trade and its nastiest symptoms is to reduce demand. Attacking supply has clearly not been a success in reducing the availability of drugs. As has been pointed out on countless occasions, most drugs are available with higher levels of purity and at a lower price today than a generation ago, despite a trillion dollars spent by the U.S. on attacking demand over the past four decades.

There is little reason to think that, with just a bit more dedication and patience, cracking down on supply will finally begin to bear fruit. It is a discredited approach. But while demand reduction is a more credible philosophy for reducing U.S. drug use than supply interdiction, there is little reason to expect demand reduction to have a revolutionary effect on organized crime in Latin America.

When one looks at the studies of American drug use compiled by the Monitoring the Future survey, which has been measuring drug use among different segments of American youth for several decades, what stands out is the relatively narrow band in which drug use fluctuates. In 1975, the proportion of 12th-graders who had used drugs in the previous 30 days was 30.7 percent; excluding marijuana, the figure was 15.4 percent.

Today, the corresponding statistics are 23.8 and 8.6 percent. Those may be significantly lower, but still more than enough to fuel an industry that currently brings up to $39 billion into Mexico on an annual basis. Furthermore, following the shock of the cocaine boom in the 1980s and the subsequent reaction against it, the ranges have been especially static over the past decade and a half or so: the number of 12th-graders who have used any drug has remained between 21.5 and 26.2 percent since 1993, while the range excluding marijuana has never strayed from 8.6 to 11.3 percent.

The survey measures drug use for a number of different age groups, but the pattern is broadly similar regardless of the category: extremely high levels in the early and mid-1980s, a significant drop in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and relative stability from the mid 1990s through the present day. A concrete success — say, the reduction in cocaine use — is mitigated by setbacks elsewhere, such as the increase in the popularity of ecstasy and salvia. This suggests that there is, and will likely always be, a small but not insignificant minority of Americans who will indulge in recreational drug use.

A counterargument is that demand reduction has never been pursued with any real seriousness. There’s certainly a lot of truth to that. However, because the market is so big, it’s difficult to imagine demand reduction efforts succeeding to the point that they would dramatically alter organized crime’s operational approach in Latin America without improvements in criminal justice institutions around the region.

If the American authorities were to somehow cut demand permanently by half, that would be a fantastic news for public health in the U.S., but it would still leave a smuggling industry worth up to $20 billion in Mexico, almost double what the nation brings in from foreign tourists. Cutting the gangs’ wealth in half would be a major accomplishment, but $20 billion is enough to corrupt a significant quantity of government officials, and to fuel underworld battles for territory.

So, even in a best-case scenario, the drug trade would still present a significant challenge to the democratic institutions that are today struggling to stay afloat in Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere in the region. To combat organized crime, whether the gangs bring in $40 billion or half that amount, competent institutions more resistant to corruption are a greater priority than reduced demand for drugs.

Legalization is likely the only way to radically cut the revenues of organized crime in Latin America. The political class in the U.S. is years away from a serious consideration of the move, and, as InSight Crime has pointed out, legalization would likely bring any number of disastrous consequences in the short term. In other words, legalization isn’t a magic bullet to make Latin America safer, but, for a real change to the playing field, that, and not demand reduction, is where the debate should focus.

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