Fraser Forum

Canada helps fund drug war abroad while eyeing marijuana legalization at home

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The U.S. war on drugs' symbolic genesis was in 1971, under President Richard Nixon, and Canada has been a supportive ally in this failed endeavour.

The war may be coming to an end in the United States, with reforms and rising awareness that it’s not worth the cost to taxpayers. In 2016 alone, 10 states will vote on marijuana liberalization, and the federal government is struggling to push back against state defiance and the weight of both public opinion and economic evidence.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has introduced bipartisan legislation to allow medical marijuana use nationwide, and there’s pending legislation to stop civil asset forfeiture by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Even when it comes to heroin, President Barack Obama this year acknowledged the strain on law enforcement and emphasized funding for treatment and education, as more appropriate responses.

The same process is in play in Canada, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has publicly backed legalization for marijuana with strict regulation—although hard drugs appear to be outside the Overton Window for the time being.

What has yet to change, however, is the international front. Even if the strategy runs counter to sentiments and reforms at home, Canadian and U.S. officials continue to crackdown on production and supply chains in neighbouring countries in the Western Hemisphere.

In 2012, for example, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced a $25 million program in Latin America. CISCA, the Canada Initiative for Security in Central America, seeks to better arm enforcement agencies to fight drug cartels.

This program is part of a larger pattern. Canadian foreign aid to the Americas goes disproportionately to countries most embedded in the drug trade. That same year, with the exception of Haiti, the largest beneficiaries were Honduras ($47 million), Colombia ($36 million), Bolivia ($31 million) and Peru ($31 million). Haiti received the most, $204 million, and is a cocaine transit point, but this data point is an outlier, given the horrific 2010 earthquake. The targeting of aid has become more pronounced since the year 2000 and continued through 2015.

If these countries were to legalize, there would be no drug war for Canada and the United States to fund. Further, foreign-aid initiatives do not take into account that cartels have infiltrated or corrupted many police agencies in developing countries. Even when police agencies seek to combat cartels, they find themselves in an arms race they cannot win. The harder they push, the more lucrative and brutal the trade becomes.

The decades-long war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is the most blatant example. Thirteen billion in U.S. aid to Colombia, between 2000 and 2016, could not defeat the narco-terrorists, and the country is now negotiating with them and even offering political power as a path to concessions.

The inevitable militarization of the police, with the help of foreign aid, has also led to extrajudicial killings in drug-trafficking hubs such as Honduras—Canada’s largest aid recipient in Latin America and a hub for the majority of flights carrying narcotics from the region. According to Human Rights Watch, "The use of lethal force by the national police is a chronic problem." Further, the Intercept reports that foreign aid emboldens the authoritarian Honduran government and that police activity amounts to "death squads."

With the deadly and ruthless activity of drug cartels protecting what they see as their territory, a similarly deadly response is predictable. That begs the question: if there’s a growing consensus in the U.S. and Canada that the drug war is costly and unwinnable, how much more costly and unwinnable will it be in poverty-stricken countries with the law of the jungle rather than the rule of law? Many of their leaders have made known through the Organization of American States that there needs to be a "more humane and effective policy."

Even if we ignore the inflamed violence from the drug war in Latin America, there appears to be little if any impact on narcotics availability in Canada. Statistics Canada reports that drug offenses held steady and even increased between 1977 and 2007, while overall crime fell in the 1990s and 2000s. In fact, Mia Dauvergne writes that domestic cannabis production was eight times higher than 30 years prior.

Such is the openness and competitiveness of Canada's illicit drug market that Toronto police have published a detailed price list, and the United Nations reports that Canadians are in the top half dozen nationalities for cannabis use. The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition further asserts that drugs are now more available, purer and stronger than 20 years ago.

The burden of proof is on those who wish to continue foreign aid to wage the drug war: how has this served either Canadians or recipient countries? As an alternative, Canada could cease funding specific drug-war activities and make aid contingent on drug liberalization.


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