About 20 minutes into a US House of Representatives hearing on the findings of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission—a body created under Obama and tasked with re-evaluating drug policy in the Americas—its chair made a statement that, heard on its own, could have sparked hope in the hearts of harm reductionists frustrated with the country’s violent global war on people who use or sell drugs.
“The US government needs better metrics and stronger evaluations of what does and doesn’t work,” said Dr. Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Commission’s chair. “Counting how many police officers have received training or how many hectares of coca have been eradicated doesn’t necessarily tell us whether we are reducing the harm of illegal drugs for Americans.”
Anyone familiar with the vast scientific literature on effective techniques for reducing the harms associated with criminalized drug use might think O’Neil was on the verge of calling for measuring drug policy in terms of access to naloxone, syringes, gold-standard addiction medications like buprenorphine, and even, simply, quality housing.
But not so. Instead, in a report this month providing drug policy recommendations for the incoming Biden-Harris administration, O’Neill and the Commission set forth a vision for an optimized global drug war that integrates “public health policies” into a more efficient assault on people involved in Latin American drug economies.
“Harm reduction and supply enforcement are mutually reinforcing,” stated the Commission. “Policy options seen as contradictory—public security vs public health (or “cops vs docs”); targeting drug use vs reducing harms; helping drug users vs protecting the rest of society—are often complementary.”
The Commission is even calling for “supply reduction policies” to be “humane”—a word often used by reformers and harm reductionists who value human rights and are diametrically opposed to supply-side crackdowns.
The State Department, or the agency that’s played a key role in human-rights-violating US imperialist projects—from former Secretary Henry Kissinger’s aid in propping up military dictatorship in Chile to former Secretary Hillary Clinton’s green-lighting of drone strikes in Yemen—is being recommended by the Commission to be the coordinator of a “whole-of-government effort to counter transnational organized crime.”
In the report’s vision, the Department has three “fundamental goals.” In addition to interdicting drug trade across borders and financing the development of other country’s “effective, legitimate”—read: US-style—criminal justice systems, like the one involved in carrying out Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s widespread human rights violations, the State Department is recommended to advance the integration of so-called “evidence-based public health policies” around the world to curb “the global demand for illicit drugs.”
At the center of the Commission’s paradoxical vision for a public-health-minded drug war, the State Department will be run by Biden-appointee Antony Blinken. He has a seasoned history of supporting imperialist projects, like the Iraq War and Israel’s apartheid occupation of Palestine, that have committed mass war crimes against people of the Global South.
Despite referencing President Trump’s 2020 drug control priority of decreasing “the number of Americans dying from these dangerous drugs,” the Commission makes claims that suggest the wellbeing of people who use drugs, at the end of the day, are not their priority. For example, they write that “offering treatment to heavy users” will ease the burden of “overall health costs” and will “prevent the spread of infections, such as HIV, to non-users.”
“The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission’s report is a breath of fresh air, said Representative Eliot L. Engel, the lawmaker and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs who authored the legislation creating the Commission, “and I hope it will serve as a blueprint for the Biden-Harris Administration and the next Congress as they work to set our counternarcotics policies on a far better path.”