UCLA International Institute
Asia Institute

Advancing collaborative, interdisciplinary research on Asia worldwide


Speaker Series Measures Laws
Former coca growers' leader and Bolivian President Evo Morales supports the development of legal coca-based products, as he explained Sept. 19 at the UN. (This May 2006 photo is by Alain Bachellier)

Speaker Series Measures Laws' Reach in Americas, Beyond

'Transnational moral entrepreneur' and founder of Drug Policy Alliance, Ethan Nadelmann steps back from anti-drug-war stance to look historically at intersection of crime control and international relations. The UCLA Latin American Center is co-sponsoring lectures tied to law school course on globalization.

My great concern is that we don't understand the limits of criminal sanction.


A longtime critic of U.S. strategy and aims in the so-called war on drugs, Ethan Nadelmann nevertheless disagrees with those Latin Americans who've told him that the U.S.-led law enforcement program is a cover for furthering the superpower's economic and security agenda. Not happily, he replies that it's about drugs. He says that the drug war in fact has harmed U.S. economic and security interests by producing, to take just one example, chronic instability in Colombia.

Like its forerunners in the enforcement of global bans on maritime piracy and the slave trade, the United States has been seduced by its own "proselytizing," Nadelmann contended Sept. 21 at an open session of a UCLA law course on globalization. But American proponents of "global prohibition regimes" differ from their predecessors in their distinctive priorities and in their faith that laws can suppress any activity, he said. It makes a big difference (generally underestimated, according to Nadelmann) that the country with the world's highest rates of incarceration also leads global efforts at homogenizing legal codes and at redefining various activities and their transnational components as crimes.

"My great concern is that we don't understand the limits of criminal sanction," he said, alluding to unintended consequences of prohibitions, such as black markets and the empowerment of organized criminals.


Nadelmann chats with a UCLA law student following his lecture. (Photo by Kevin Matthews)

The Sept. 21 lecture was one in a series of course-related events arranged by Professor of Law Maximo Langer and co-sponsored by the UCLA International and Comparative Law Roundtable and the UCLA Latin American Center. About 30 of Langer's students and at least 30 more members of the UCLA community attended. Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates for alternative, public-health-based approaches to reducing the harm caused by the use of legal and illegal drugs.

For his UCLA talk, Nadelmann, a former Princeton University professor and co-author of Policing the Globe: Criminalization and Crime Control in International Relations (2006), set aside advocacy to place the creation of global bans in historical and cultural context. The approach he offered was comparative in several senses. Nadelmann is interested in the roles of officials and activists, or "transnational moral entrepreneurs," in pushes to criminalize alcohol, copyright infringement, counterfeiting, corruption, and the killing of endangered species, and in compatibilities and tensions among sovereign nations' criminal justice systems. For example, he noted that U.S. anti-drug agents met resistance when trying to convince police in European democracies to tap phones and use informants, tactics strongly associated with secret police.

In addition, and in contrast to many other serious students of history, Nadelmann finds it productive to ask "What if?" What if Latin American or Arab states had been in a position to lead global prohibition regimes? What if a flu pandemic or ecological damage spawns a new set of global prohibitions? What if a Viagra-like drug had "first emerged among dark-skinned men in the inner city"? (Answer: "there would be a 20-year penalty for using it.")

The same analytical habit, it seems, moved Nadelmann years ago to ask what the United States would do about drugs if it were really responding to its own economic, security, and public health interests. It might begin by heeding some of the advice given by Bolivian President Evo Morales in a Sept. 19 speech before the United Nations General Assembly. A former coca farmer, Morales supports legalizing consumer and medicinal uses of the crop from which cocaine is made. Coca has been cultivated in the Andes for centuries.

As for the future, Nadelmann said, if current trends continue Interpol will expand, more bilateral law enforcement agreements will become multilateral, and the emergence of transnational criminal networks will provoke a continuing globalization of law enforcement. Meanwhile, China will become a second major player in global crime control, with uncertain consequences, he said.