Reps. Engel, Salmon Pen Op-Ed on Future of U.S. Drug Policy in Americas

Drug Policy: Our Unfinished Business in the Americas

January 3, 2017

By Reps. Eliot L. Engel and Matt Salmon

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In 2015, opioid deaths in the United States exceeded 30,000 for the first time in recent history. As both parents and members of Congress, we find this unacceptable. Our first duty as lawmakers confronting this epidemic is to ensure that Americans have access to the drug treatment services that they need. At the same time, we have a responsibility to take a fresh look at our international efforts to fight the drug trade in Latin America and the Caribbean. By doing so, we can ensure that we have the best strategy moving forward. That is why we authored the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act which was signed into law last month.

As former Chairmen of the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee from opposite ends of the political spectrum, we have supported U.S efforts over the years to enhance citizen security and fight drug trafficking in Latin America and the Caribbean. Billions of dollars later, some of those efforts have been successful while others have not brought about the results we hoped for. As American lives continue to be lost to the scourge of drug abuse, it is only fair to make an honest assessment of how we spend our counter-narcotics dollars abroad. Our families deserve no less.

The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission will be an independent U.S. government commission that will evaluate our drug policies in Latin America and the Caribbean and make recommendations to the President and Congress on which of our policies need to be scaled up and which need to be scaled back. 

So why focus on the Western Hemisphere? Nearly all cocaine consumed in our country originates in South America, while most heroin consumed here is from Colombia and Mexico. And Central America and the Caribbean are key transit regions for drugs entering the United States.

As just one example, poppy cultivation in Mexico is on the rise. Poppy is being used to produce the heroin that is flooding our streets. As we look to support our friends in Mexico in moving away from poppy production and into more viable economic sectors, it would serve the United States well to learn from our multi-year investment in Colombia. Specifically, we must ask what worked and what did not work when it came to coca eradication and alternative development programs over the past 20 years.

Drug consumption in the United States has wreaked havoc on our communities and impacted countless lives. But, it has also fueled violence throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. We can and must do better, and the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission will help us to take the next steps towards a better future for all of us in the Americas.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) is the Ranking Member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) is the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. Both previously served as Chairmen of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.