The Biden Administration's Drug Surrender | Opinion

For decades, the U.S. and Mexico have been locked in a blame game over illegal drugs. The U.S. demands that Mexico do more to curtail supply, while Mexico insists that the U.S. must do more to reduce demand. As U.S. ambassador to Mexico during the Trump administration, I tried to break this cycle of recrimination by urging each country to take responsibility for matters within its own control instead of focusing on the other's shortcomings.

It is Mexico's responsibility to address the flow of illegal drugs (and precursor agents) within its borders and the virtually unchecked power of sophisticated criminal networks to operate with general impunity within large chunks of the country. And it is the United States' responsibility to reduce its apparently limitless demand for illegal drugs (a task that requires revamped and revitalized education efforts), to crack down on the networks that distribute such drugs within the U.S. and to stem the flow of money and weapons to criminal networks in Mexico.

Last month's summit with Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador afforded President Joe Biden an opportunity to refocus the two countries' counternarcotics efforts. He failed to do so. According to the official White House readout of the meeting, the two presidents addressed the drug issue by pledging "to create working groups on arms trafficking and related transborder crime and border security," and "to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding for joint cooperation on mental health, substance use disorder, and addictions." Notably absent was any substantive strategy to attack either the supply of, or the demand for, illegal drugs.

That absence should come as no surprise; when it comes to drugs, the Biden administration has embraced a strategy of surrender. None of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy's top three priorities involve any effort to reduce drug supply or demand. Rather, those priorities characterize illegal drug use as a public-health challenge—"substance use disorders"—and focus primarily on treatment.

Biden and Obrador
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 18: U.S. President Joe Biden (R) meets with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (L) in the Oval Office of the White House November 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Lopez Obrador is in Washington to participate in the first North American Leaders’ Summit (NALS) since 2016. Doug Mills/Getty Images

The administration identifies its top drug priority as "expanding access to evidence-based treatment." But treatment represents an effort to ameliorate the negative consequences of drug use, not an attempt to prevent such use in the first place. The need for treatment is a reflection of the problem, not a pathway toward a solution.

The administration's second priority is "advancing racial equity in our approach to drug policy." On examination, this turns out to be nothing more than a variation on the treatment theme. The administration wants to ensure that "Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)" individuals can access treatment at the same level as "White individuals." But illegal drugs are killing Americans across all racial and demographic categories. Focusing on equality of access to treatment is a little bit like focusing on equality of access to lifeboats on the Titanic instead of trying to avoid the iceberg.

The administration's third priority, "enhancing evidence-based harm reduction efforts," differs from its first priority only insofar as the administration posits a distinction between formal "treatment" efforts and "organizations that offer low-barrier services, including harm reduction," such as "syringe services programs." Whatever the merits of providing services—including access to free syringes—to drug addicts, such programs are no substitute for effective education and interdiction efforts. Overdoses, after all, kill not only longtime addicts, but even those trying illegal drugs (such as pills laced with fentanyl) for the first time.

Last year, the U.S. passed the somber milestone of more than 100,000 overdose deaths—double the number from 2015, which was itself a record year. The administration's prioritization of treatment, at the expense of efforts to reduce either supply or demand, will do nothing to stem the flow of illegal drugs. And without a clear commitment by both the U.S. and Mexico, as well as a clear division of responsibilities between the two countries, the illegal drug trade will continue to exact a terrible toll on both sides of the border.

Christopher Landau was U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 2019-21.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.