Drug cartels run amok in a policy vacuum

While it may seem obvious, the United States surprisingly lacks a comprehensive plan to bring down drug trafficking organizations. The federal government does have some counter-drug strategies, but they are either too broad — like the annual National Drug Control Strategy, which reads more like an “accomplishment report” of past successes rather than a “how to” manual — or too focused — like the National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which addresses, among other things, ways to strengthen security along the border itself.

Drug cartels have become international criminal organizations that derive billions of dollars in income through numerous drug transit routes — including through Mexico and the Caribbean to the United States and, recently, via Africa to Europe. Each of these routes represents a substantial lifeline for the cartels, and, if we are to succeed, all of them must be disrupted.

The U.S. needs a comprehensive plan that not only includes ways to more aggressively dismantle all the drug trafficking routes, but also focuses on stemming the flow of money to the cartels and reducing domestic demand. Further, the strategy must contain a realistic assessment of how much it will cost to reach our objectives. Any plan would be useless without the appropriate funding.

All of this, of course, raises the question: why don’t we have a plan? The main reason is the absence of leadership from the top. Both Congress and past and current administrations have failed to provide the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) with adequate authority to direct, oversee and coordinate the plans and actions of multiple and diverse agencies involved in the drug war.

ONDCP was established by Congress in the late 1980’s as an arm of the White House with the mission of reducing illegal drug use and drug trafficking. It is responsible for, among other things, overseeing the anti-drug operations and budgets of such agencies as the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, the Department of Defense and U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement, just to name a few. It also works in a variety of ways with state and local law enforcement. More importantly, it has expressly been given the responsibility for developing strategies and reports, including the nation’s drug control strategy.

Given its role and responsibilities, ONDCP is the obvious choice to develop a comprehensive and effective strategy against the drug cartels. However, it has not done so, and will not likely do so, because it doesn’t have the authority it needs to coordinate the work of multiple and often competing line agencies and other organizations, such as the National Security Council, that are involved in all aspects of the drug war.

Two ways can bring about the coordination among the various agencies that is essential if we are to have a cohesive and effective strategy against drug trafficking organizations. The first is for Congress to statutorily require it. This method has been used frequently with ONDCP and other agencies by placing what is called “report language” in either an authorizing or appropriations bill. It demands that an agency produce a report, plan, strategy, etc., on a given subject and submit it to Congress at a certain time. In fact, this was done for the National Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy.

The second way, which would be far more expedient and would show the clear commitment of the president to winning the battle against the cartels, would be for the White House to give its full backing to the ONDCP director, demand that an effective and workable product be developed, and require all the relevant agencies to participate. ONDCP was created for this very task. However, its current authority to decertify anti-drug agencies’ budgets provides it with only limited leverage over the departments. The only way that ONDCP will get all of the interagency cooperation needed to carry out this vital task is to have the full authority of the president to make it happen. In other words, the president should let the drug czar be the drug czar.

Bradley C. Schreiber, the president of a government relations company, was a senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2007 to 2009.

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