While speaking at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, in September, Retired Marine Corps General John Kelly, remarked that, “The biggest threat to our national security today is drugs.” As a recent White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of Homeland Security, and Commander, U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom), Kelly is intimately familiar with the nation’s illicit drug challenges. He argues that the country needs a national campaign to reduce U.S. demand for illicit drugs—and it needs it now.
The country’s appetite for illicit drugs is indeed alarming. According to a 2019 RAND Corporation study, the United States consumes roughly $150 billion a year worth of illegal drugs, just $8 billion shy of its average annual alcohol consumption. Yet unlike legitimate companies that make and sell alcohol, transnational criminal organizations run the illicit drug industry, organizations that have no qualms about harming the local economies and societies in Mexico from where they produce and distribute their product to meet our demand.
On the Proceedings Podcast, Kelly says “15 to 20 years ago all the heroin consumed in the United States came from Asia. Now the vast majority of heroin consumed in the United States … [as well as] methamphetamines, are made in Mexico.” The Drug Enforcement Administration considers Mexican transnational criminal organizations the “greatest criminal drug threat to the United States.” Unsurprisingly, more than half the 256,000 illegal aliens removed from the United States by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2018 were from Mexico. But many Mexicans travel north to escape the devastating violence created by the illicit drug industry to fulfill U.S. demand. Although Kelly observed the Mexican government, “doing a tremendous amount” to fight narcoterrorism, “the reason the insurgency exists is our drug consumption.”
While serving as Secretary of Homeland Security and SouthCom commander, Kelly would engage with leaders of Latin American countries, and many would ask, “Well, John, what has America done this week, this month, this year, this decade to stop the demand for drugs?” He would answer, “Nothing to speak of.”
Currently, the Office of National Drug Control Policy invests just $1.5 billion per year on prevention, compared with $10.5 billion on treatment, $9 billion on law enforcement, and $5 billion on interdiction.
Kelly feels a national antidrug campaign to change U.S. culture will not only help reduce the country’s appetite for drugs, but it will also help our southern neighbors restore order and peace to communities affected by drug trafficking. Kelly reminds that national campaigns have proven successful: Comprehensive campaigns increased seatbelt usage, stigmatized and further criminalized drunk driving, and raised awareness to the dangers of cigarette smoking. The success of these campaigns stems from a unified message supported by legislation, enforced by law enforcement, repeated by community and school leaders, and adopted by individuals.
But until the United States decreases demand, “we need more Coast Guard,” argues Kelly. Typically, the Coast Guard meets its target, interdicting 10 to 15 percent of maritime-trafficked cocaine. Lieutenant Noah Miller, U.S. Coast guard, claims in his August Proceedings article that this loss of product is just a “modest business tax for drug smugglers” and does little to hamper supply. Still, at-sea drug busts are huge. Kelly recalls, the “Coast Guard, on any given take down, will get certainly no less than two tons of cocaine . . . and oftentimes 12 to 15 tons . . . but the [service] isn’t big enough and can’t deploy enough cutters” to prevent all at-sea contraband from reaching U.S. shores.
What each interdiction offers, though, is an opportunity for joint organization success. Routinely, the Coast Guard works with international navies and DoD organizations, as well as ICE, Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services to prevent drug trafficking.
The Coast Guard’s ability to work well with others and get the job done at sea has made it a trusted partner for creating a unity of effort that disrupts transnational criminal organizations on land, too. As part of the Southern Border and Approaches Campaign, several Coast Guard officers work with these same Department of Homeland Security (DHS) partners at Joint Task Force–West (JTF-W) in Texas, focusing on counternetwork operations and other initiatives to disrupt these criminal organizations. According to JTF-W campaign planning section chief Captain Allison Caputo, U.S. Coast Guard, their role is to help coordinate DHS personnel and assets to protect the Southern border. “While stopping drug flow is critical,” Caputo says, “attacking all parts of the drug enterprise—including illegal migration and the trafficking of persons, illicit weapons, and money associated with smuggling—is even more important.”
Coast Guard personnel assigned to JTF-W also work directly with regional offices in South Texas and Southern California and provide planning training at the four JTF-W corridors in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California to improve coordination, measure results, and capture process improvements. As service talent spreads inland, it is clear why Kelly calls the Coast Guard the “unsung heroes of interdiction.”
Still, “we can’t interdict our way out of this,” Kelly argues. The solution “has got to be interdiction and demand reduction.” Yet the United States continues to fight the war on drugs reactively: the Coast Guard and its DHS partners prevent drugs (already produced) from entering the country, local law enforcement arrests those who sell drugs, hospitals treat patients on drugs, and families and communities mourn those who die from drug use. National campaigns take years—decades, even—to change behavior. There is no time to waste.