The recent arrest, trial, and subsequent conviction of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the former head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, has allowed America to notch a rare win in its so-called war on drugs.
However, even as the world’s most renown drug kingpin begins his life sentence in the Colorado supermax facility known as the “Alcatraz of the Rockies”, questions remain about why the capture and prosecution of El Chapo has done virtually nothing to stem the flow of illegal narcotics into the U.S.
In a special report, El Chapo arrest, the cartels, and America’s opioid addiction, Thomson Reuters examines this question, with expert insight from Peter Vincent, former general counsel for Thomson Reuters Special Services (TRSS) and now a member of Henley & Partners, a global firm that specializes in residence and citizenship planning. Before joining TRSS, Vincent was former acting director of International Affairs for the Department of Homeland Security and principal legal advisor for Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Obama administration.
Vincent says that “for all their viciousness, these large cartels are run like sophisticated, trans-national organizations” that can “hire the best accountants, attorneys, engineers, technicians, chemists, and security that money can buy.”
Poor results despite dollars spent
Worse yet, as the special report points out, the widening gap between the dollars and resources spent on drug-related law enforcement and the pitiful lack of results has re-focused the question on whether there are better ways to wage this fight. And after more than $1 trillion spent over the past 50 years since the “war on drugs” began, it’s not surprising that some people have lost their stomach for this fight.
Vincent is one of those people, concluding that the country’s drug policy is misguided, and bold systemic changes are needed as the nation tries to address its opioid epidemic. Indeed, as the special report notes, more than 70,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses in 2017, according to the National Institute for Drug Abuse, and more than two-thirds of those deaths involved some form of opioid.
“As someone who was on the front lines for many years, I can tell you that our attention has been dangerously misguided,” says Vincent. “We have spent way too much time and money addressing the supply side, and not nearly enough on the demand side.”
How to fight the war on drugs?
The special report goes on to describe ways America could address this epidemic from the demand side by working to reduce the number of people who desire, purchase, and consume opioids. However, the opioid epidemic presents a particularly thorny social problem because as the report describes, it affects people of all races, nationalities, and income levels.
One way to reduce people’s dependency on opioids that Vincent talks about in the report is to change the way addicts are perceived and treated. Further, he says, any realistic approach to the opioid epidemic would require a multi-pronged strategy involving cooperation between the criminal-justice system, the medical community, social-service providers, mental-health professionals, employment counselors, and myriad other support services. It would also take an overhaul of the U.S. health-insurance industry that would allow — and even encourage — wider use of alternative pain-management techniques to keep people from becoming addicted in the first place.
Indeed, this problem that has deeper impact on American than just our health, Vincent says, adding that it has affected our nation’s ability to be taken serious as a leader on the global stage. “Our rates of drug use, mass shootings, depression, and alcoholism are greatly impacting our ability to establish any moral high ground in the world,” he says. “We as a nation often find ourselves lecturing people to follow our example, but that’s a hard argument to make when our indicators are so poor.”