Evaluate the role of the USA in shaping international drug policy.

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Jonathan Paul Kenny: 4007055: Politics and Drugs

Evaluate the role of the USA in shaping international drug policy.

No internationally recognized definition for an “international drug policy” can be found.  However, it is a broad umbrella term which refers to various drug treaties, such as the Single Convention of 1961 and the development of international drug law through international institutions such as the United Nations – which expects member states to implement any advances in law into domestic legislation. Therefore in order to evaluate U.S. influence in the shaping of international drugs policy, it is necessary first to analyse drug treaties since initial attempts were made to deal with the problem of illicit drugs on a multi-lateral international scale. Next, the extent to which the U.S. has shaped international law at a supranational level is investigated in the context of how the U.S. has sought to coerce sovereign states into implementing its own domestic legislation in an attempt to internationalize and export its own drug agenda.  Finally, recent developments in U.S. drug policy will be reviewed in relation to their influence on specific countries such as Columbia to illustrate exactly how powerful, or otherwise they are.  

Wittkopt et al assert that after World War II the US ‘actively embraced global responsibilities’, assuming an assertive foreign policy that constructed a world compatible with the American vision. Consequently they posit that the international political system has been a ‘product of the policies and programs the United States engineered’ thus adopting the view that the US has internationalized issues such as illicit drugs and terrorism (Wittkopt et al, 2003, pg195).

Undoubtedly the U.S. has had a profound impact on shaping international drug policy ever since the 1909 Shanghai International Opium Convention which ‘provided the legal basis for the beginning of the homogenization of domestic drug control policies on a world-wide scale’ (Begley -Taylor, 1999, pg2).  Before this multinational meeting there was no global pattern regarding common rules, norms or laws on drugs, in which states could conform to. Although the U.S. has always exerted considerable influence on international drug laws and conventions, the end of the Cold War saw an increase in U.S. concern for global drug problem. It has emerged as one of the most salient foreign policy issues with American taxpayers having spent $23 billion since 1981 (Falco, 1996, pg124).

American drug ideology is perceived to be driven by altruism, Stanley Hoffman called it ‘unconscious paternalism’ (Begley-Taylor, 1999, pg 8). It is a highly moral policy meaning that a zero-tolerance stance has been assumed since day one. It has used its size and economic wealth to export its values and ideology to other nations for decades, and in essence has forced other nations to adopt their policies on important international issues such as drugs. Thus Begley-Taylor suggested that ‘since the beginning of the twentieth century the United States has sought, with considerable success to internationalize the principals behind its national response to curb illicit drug use (Begley-Taylor, 1999, pg 1). U.S. hegemony has led to significant pressure on state sovereignty, shaping domestic drug policy and resulting in implementation of conventions that follow the USA’s moral code on drugs regardless of socio-cultural issues that would otherwise influence legislation.  

Many regard the talk of the winning a war on illicit drugs as utopian rhetoric. The issue of drugs is high on every nation’s political agenda with the increased prevalence of the losing battle resonating on a global scale. With the discerning reality that the estimated annual drug industry generates worldwide in excess of $300 billion a year in gross total receipts, numerous theorists find the contention of a complete u-turn impossible to conceptualize and thus are almost unanimous in dismissing it as an unrealistic goal (Perl, 1990, pg 126). Therefore the inherent question is whether the current international drug policy based around the prohibition ideology, lead by the United States with stark activism, is in fact counter-productive and redundant. Many assert the merits of a non-prohibitionist policy. Coomber defines a non-prohibitionist policy as ‘referring to any aspects of policy other than those concerned with banning drugs and drug use’ (Coomber, 2000, pg 233)

This paper evaluates America’s ideology on drugs and the effect its ideology has had in shaping international drug policy.  The thesis of this paper is that the USA has played a profound and important role on the evolution of drug policy with the supranational nature it has assumed since the end of World War 2. Thus this essay will take a neo-realist perspective asserting that the role of hegemonic actors, such as the U.S. will always be influential in leading inter-state relations; wielding power in such a way to further their own domestic policy crusades whilst exporting ideology consciously or unconsciously (Begley- Taylor, 1999, pg 5).    

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Prior to evaluating the United States quest in shaping international drug policy it is necessary to outline America’s ideology on drugs for purposes of clarity. America’s attitudes toward drugs have always been inextricably linked with morality. Drugs are perceived to be, ‘foreign threats to America’s social fabric, undermining traditional values and political stability’. America’s domestic drug problem has consistently been associated with immigrant and minority groups: opium with Chinese labourers in the west; cocaine with blacks; and marijuana with Mexican immigrants in the Southwest (Falco, 1996, pg 120). Consequently negative social, economic and political consequences are associated with drugs ...

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