What If They Held a War on Drugs and Nobody Fought? The Ticker

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By James Gibney

The only thing worse than asking the nations of Central America to fight our War on Drugs is to stick them with the tab. That in essence is what the U.S. is doing.

In an interview with Bloomberg News, Costa Rica's president Laura Chinchilla details the grim price that Costa Rica and its neighbors are paying in their fight with drug traffickers who supply the U.S. market with cannabis, cocaine, heroin and sundry other illicit substances.

Violent crime is sharply higher in Costa Rica and its neighbors. Honduras, with 82 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, has the world's highest rate. El Salvador, Belize and Guatemala now have, respectively, the world's second, fifth and sixth-highest rates. Central America has become home to more than 900 gangs with 70,000 members -- a hard core of them schooled in U.S. prisons -- and lots and lots of Made-in-the-U.S.A. firearms. Corruption and impunity are becoming even more entrenched. As the U.N.'s International Narcotics Control Board documents in a new report, methamphetamine production is spreading to Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize.

So far, consumption is still mostly our problem: More than 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 12 have smoked dope in the last year, versus 1 in 40 Central Americans. Same with cocaine -- proportionally, about twice as many Americans use cocaine in any given year. In other words, it's not the Central Americans' war as much as it is ours, and we shouldn't force them to fight it.

We're not really serious about giving them enough money to do the job in any case: The U.S. is spending about $60 million on regional counternarcotics programs; meanwhile we're going to drop almost a billion on training the police force in Iraq -- a country whose GDP is roughly equal to that of Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras combined. I'd rather put that money closer to home.

President Chinchilla and other leaders in the region have called for a "serious" debate on legalization. Sounds like a good idea to me. They could even tax drugs for revenue (to make up for the piddling foreign aid they'd lose when the U.S. Congress starts hopping up and down in response). Now there's a nice pipe dream.

(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

-0- Mar/02/2012 14:19 GMT