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In his February 2023 Inroads Special Report Haiti’s Crisis, Canada’s Moment of Decision, Henry Milner called for a two-pronged Canadian-led intervention. Milner said – and who can dissent – that “when your neighbour’s house is on fire, you don’t haggle over the garden hose.” But the brute fact is that one of Haiti’s neighbours is hosing gasoline onto the fire. The United States, the globe’s most voracious consumer of cocaine, prosecutes a relentless “war on drugs” which accounts for much of the gang violence that is tearing Haiti and Central America apart. Haiti is collateral damage in that war.

As a longtime student of the unintended consequences of the war on drugs, I believe that outside intervention that does not address this feature of drug prohibition is doomed. And the reason is simple: drugs are, by orders of magnitude, the most lucrative contraband in the world, generating astronomical revenues for the cartels that produce and transport them. Haiti, with its long history of corruption and dysfunction, is a perfect environment for gangs. Canada played a leading role in the inauguration of the global war on drugs. We should lead the world out of this catastrophe.

And it’s long been a mystery to me why more members of my tribe – political scientists – are not in the streets demanding that the war on drugs be terminated. As political scientists we know – or should know – three things about how power operates:

  • prohibition enriches and empowers organized criminal groups by enforcing artificially high prices for contraband;
  • artificially high prices for prohibited substances empowers and legitimizes larger budgets for agencies of organized repression (police, intelligence and security); and,
  • organized crime and organized repression, operationalizing their innate bureaucratic rationales, are overdetermined to endanger the institutions of liberal democracy – one by corruption and violence, the other by overreach and mission creep.

These two social institutions, cops and gangs, thus become symbiotic upon each other for organizational survival and growth. It’s an upward power spiral that admits of no logical endpoint as long as prohibition seeks to strangle supply – which only weeds out weaker, less efficient and less well-organized gangs – rather than aggressively reduce demand.

That is why Haiti is on the tragic path of the Northern Triangle – Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico – whose displaced and terrorized citizens, fleeing the violence and mayhem unleashed by rival cartels, cross the southern U.S. border. And that is why we should expect more of the same as long as the Darwinian logic of drug prohibition is permitted to incentivize traffickers to terrorize, subjugate and murder those who dare to get between them and their money.

Like Milner, I am frustrated and disappointed: that the ravages wrought by the war on drugs, all across the globe, are not front and centre in the minds of public intellectuals of every description – that we are not out on the streets demanding that public policy cease and desist from growing the power and influence of organized crime and organized repression. I understand that – as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton allegedly mused – “we don’t know how to take all that money out of the global economy,” but that’s a secondary problem, in my mind, to de-escalating a war that (a) cannot ever be “won” and (b) perpetually empowers the most antidemocratic institutions in our polities.

We cannot liberate Haiti in isolation from the metastatic cancer that is the global war on drugs.­­

Even the most effective Canadian intervention – however adroitly managed – will only relocate the problem to another jurisdiction, a phenomenon called “the balloon effect” in drug-war scholarship. As long as the war on drugs finances organized crime and corruption, no Canadian government is going to risk the years-long outlay of blood and treasure required to impose law and order on an anarchy. It might be the right thing to do, and it is certainly the humane thing to do, but it’s an abyss into which, absent more fundamental reforms, the Canadian people dare not stare.

Milner closed with a question: What is the alternative to Canada’s intervention? A short-term solution is for one gang to dominate the island – effectively monopolizing the use of force – but that seems unlikely in the current circumstances. The only enduring alternative is reregulating illicit drugs. All drugs. Across the board. You can have the rule of law and functioning institutions in a place like Haiti, or you can have a war on drugs. But you cannot have both.