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Obama Signals Retreat in the War on Drugs

John P. Walters

You might have missed it, but on July 9 the White House quietly announced in a press release that cocaine use in the U.S. is down by over a third since 2006. This news comes on the heels of a major reduction in world-wide cocaine production, down 41% between 2001 and 2012 according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Cocaine-related deaths in the U.S. dropped 44% between 2006 and 2010. The rate of positive drug tests for cocaine declined even more steeply, down 65% between 2006 and mid-2012.

You do not have to have lived during the cocaine and crack epidemics of the 1980s and early 1990s to be grateful for this remarkable change. If you did, the progress seems miraculous. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is cutting the funds and undermining the political will that helped bring about this transformation.

Of all those who contributed to this striking success in the effort to control illegal drugs, two leaders deserve particular thanks: Alvaro Uribe, president of Colombia from 2002-10, and Felipe Calderón, president of Mexico from 2006-12.

President Uribe changed the future of Colombia by attacking the cocaine trade and violent groups on the left and right who used trafficking as a source of power. He brought the rule of law to large areas of his country where people had given up hope.

President Calderón made taking back Mexico from violent traffickersnarco-terroriststhe center of his administration. While cocaine trafficking is only a part of the cartels’ criminal activity, Mr. Calderón stepped up attacks on cartel leaders; in January 2007 he even sent a planeload of his worst traffickers to justice in the United States. Because he had the courage to take on this difficult struggle, he began to see the power and violence of these criminal groups decline before he left office, as drug-related murders dropped 12% in the first five months of 2012.

Messrs. Uribe and Calderón created an unprecedented alliance with the U.S. to serve the interests of their homelands, but as in any true alliance all the partners were better for it. Democrats and Republicans stood up for these two leaders, giving critical enforcement, eradication, interdiction and adjudication support to their efforts. During their presidencies, Colombia and Mexico extradited hundreds of their worst traffickers to the U.S. to buy time for their developing judicial systems.

Recent events in Mexico indicate that enforcement successes there will be sustained. But Mr. Calderón has expressed frustration with the failure to reduce drug consumption in the U.S., and he has warned that unchecked demand could lead to drug legalization.

A 41% reduction in cocaine production, one might imagine, has something to do with a 44% reduction in cocaine overdoses. Yet the Obama administration is actually proposing to cut funding for international drug control to $1.5 billion for fiscal year 2014 from $1.9 billion in this fiscal year, a 21% reduction. In its July 9 press release, the White House tells us that it is time to spend an additional $1.4 billion to expand treatment and education, “the largest percentage increase in at least two decades.”

Prevention and treatment are worthy activities, but the administration seems to have missed the point in its press release, which links the declines in cocaine use to reductions in supply. It offers no evidence that treatment and prevention played any role.

Most of all, President Obama’s failure to push back against drug legalization in this country works against international anti-drug efforts. Raymond Yans, president of the International Narcotics Control Board, warned in March that allowing the implementation of legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington “would be a violation of international law, namely the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, to which the United States is a party.” The U.S. is now undermining the foundation of the very achievement the administration just announced.

President Obama is as close to an icon for the young as any president has ever been. He and many of his generation used drugs and suffered for that usea point he makes in his 1995 autobiography, “Dreams From My Father.”

The president needs once again to speak honestly about the danger. If he sat with our children and spoke to them as if they were his daughters, he would be a powerful force for prevention. How about a single speech? Perhaps he could dedicate it to America’s allies and the brave men and women who have given their lives to keep us safe.

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