The U.S. drug problem is shifting from illicit substances like cocaine to abuse of prescription painkillers, a change that is forcing policy makers to re-examine the long and expensive strategy of trying to stop illegal drugs from entering the country, says the New York Times. More than half of the 36,450 U.S. overdose deaths in 2008 involved a prescription drug. In the U.S., policy makers are debating how to reduce demand for painkillers. The effects would be felt in Mexico and in Central America: With drug wars in Mexico inflaming violence, some argue that the money used for interdiction could be better spent building up institutions like courts and prosecutors' offices that would lead to long-term stability in Mexico and elsewhere.
“The policies the United States has had for the last 41 years have become irrelevant,” said Morris Panner, a former counternarcotics prosecutor in New York and at the American Embassy in Colombia, now an adviser at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. “The United States was worried about shipments of cocaine and heroin for years, but whether those policies worked or not doesn't matter because they are now worried about Americans using prescription drugs.” While a major change in policy is not imminent — “It's all aircraft carriers, none of it moves on a dime,” as a senior Obama administration official put it — the election of a new president in Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, is likely to have an immediate impact on the debate. He has promised to focus not on drugs but rather on reducing the violent crimes that most affect Mexicans.