IPE Annual Symposium to Focus on Drug Trade and its Challenges


The Middlebury College department of International Politics and Economics (IPE) will host its fifth annual symposium, “The Global Illicit Drug Trade: Confronting Challenges and Exploring Solutions” on Friday, Oct. 28.

The event, slated to take place in the Robert A. Jones House Conference Room, will mainly consist of three lectures delivered by guest speakers with expertise in drug policy; the fourth will be given by Rebecca Tiger, a professor of sociology at the College.

In the lead-up to the symposium, the Campus spoke with Professors Mark Williams and Sebnem Gumuscu (Political Science) and William Pyle (Economics), who have served as the primary organizers of the event. All three highlighted the symposium’s pragmatic, policy-oriented focus, as well as the increasing pertinence of drug policy both at home and overseas.

“There were a number of things that led to this topic,” said Williams. 

Perhaps the biggest motivator, he said, was a United Nations General Assembly session convened in April which focused on the world drug problem. 

“Countries were trying to rethink the international law that deals with drug trafficking,” he explained. “We wanted to time the topic to coincide with that, to build off whatever momentum may have come out of that session.”

A central theme of the symposium, the professors said, will be an analysis of the perceived failures of global drug policy, and what steps nations may take to forge a better future.

“The standard pathway for a long time has been prohibition of drug production and drug consumption—selling and so forth —and punishment for those that are involved in any of those processes,” Williams said. “For many countries, there’s been a growing consensus that this sort of standard approach hasn’t worked. Not only hasn’t it worked, but it’s created more problems without even solving the problems of the drug trade itself.”

Moreover, Williams highlighted that the subject has increasing relevance at home. “I think that over time, there’s been a growing perception that something is not right with the way that we’ve been approaching illicit drugs,” he said. “You can see that, not only in the number of people that are incarcerated but in the return of some drugs that had been on the decline, like heroin.”

Pyle concurred, noting that the issue has particular resonance “if we think about something like marijuana policy, which is changing on a state-by-state basis. We have policy experiments in Washington state, Colorado—it’s something that’s directly relevant to Vermont state politics, it’s part of the governor’s race right now and the state legislature dealt with marijuana legalization in just the past year […]. So it’s something that’s international in scope but it also resonates nicely with issues that hit closer to home.”

Gumuscu elaborated on the significance of drug policy from a geopolitical standpoint. “I study and teach comparative politics, and we talk a lot about state building and state failure,” she said. “Interestingly, drug trade is a very important part of that process in very different parts of the world, especially the developing world.”

She explained that insurgent groups—sometimes known as terrorist groups, “depending on the point of view”—often depend heavily upon the drug market. “[These groups] gather substantial financial income and resources from this trade,” she said. “And they can thus finance their operations in many of these developing countries […]. So there are multiple dimensions to it, from state-building and state failure to insurgencies, terrorist organizations and transnational terrorist organizations and networks.”

Each of the day’s speakers, the professors said, would highlight some aspect of these issues. The first is Peter Reuter, a professor at the University of Maryland who Pyle described as “an expert on the international policy regime.” His lecture, “The International Drug Policy Reform Agenda: Why It Misses the Major Problems and Opportunities,” will be a critical examination of the drug policies undertaken by nations around the world.

The second speaker will be Beau Kilmer, a researcher at the RAND Drug Policy Research Center. His talk, “Marijuana Legalization 2016: Assessing the International Policy Landscape and Implementation Issues,” will analyze differing approaches to marijuana legalization.

Kilmer will be followed by Alejandro Madrazo Lajous, a researcher from Mexico City whose lecture, “The Constitutional Costs of the War on Drugs,” will compare drug policies in Colombia, Mexico and the United States, as well as how those policies affect the civil liberties and constitutional commitments that governments grant to their citizens.

The final speaker, Rebecca Tiger, will deliver a lecture titled “(Re) Imagining Drugs and Addiction: The Past, Present and Possible Future of Drug Policy,” focusing on the sociological implications of drug addiction.

“While we were putting together the program, we wanted to make sure that we covered a lot of ground, and as many different factors and dimensions as possible,” said Gumuscu. “So from Europe to North America, South America and even developing countries in general, that was the goal: to look at this particular topic from a very comprehensive perspective.”

Above all, the professors hope that attendees leave the symposium with a greater understanding of a highly complicated issue.

“One of the important takeaways that I personally want to emphasize would be the complexity of the issue and how multidimensional it is, and how hard it is to find easy solutions to this problem,” Gumuscu said.

“With an issue as complicated as drug trafficking and the other externalities that it creates, it’s unlikely that you’ll come up with a policy that will solve all problems,” agreed Williams. “So the issue would be, can we use the past, and other countries’ policy experiments and experiences, to minimize the risks that we would take as we try to reform policy? And can we actually maximize benefits from adopting some reforms while avoiding unnecessary costs?”

“We hope that the folks who attend come away with a better appreciation for the sorts of policy experiments that are being discussed currently and the costs of the current enforcement regime, whether it’s in terms of violence or incarceration or resources spent on policing,” Pyle concluded. “And a consequence that we could hope for is that the people walk out better-informed, able to be better citizens and better voters on issues relating to drug policy. If we can push the ball forward in that respect, then we’ll have done something very valuable.”