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<p>Photo courtesy of the Global Commission on Drug Policy</p>

Photo courtesy of the Global Commission on Drug Policy

Global Commission on Drug Policy commissioners.

One Whacked War

Latin American leaders have put drug policy back on the agenda. Is it time to forget prohibition and decriminalise — or even legalise?


The war on drugs born of former US president Richard Nixon turns 41 this June, and there is no denying it has aged badly.

The strategy of criminalising consumption while attacking production and traffic has evidently failed. Despite more than a trillion dollars of investment, there are now more drugs, more producers and traffickers, more users — many of whom are incarcerated — and much more organised crime and drug-related violence.

Talk of ridding the world of illicit drugs has proved wildly fanciful. Remember the United Nations's 1998 slogan? "A drug-free world: We can do it." It was to have been achieved by 2008 — but in a frank March 2009 review of the previous decade's efforts, the UN admitted that not only had its key objective not been met, the situation was "spiralling out of control".

Nowhere has the reality — and the failure — of the US-led drug policy been more keenly felt than in Latin America. And it is here, that leaders past and present are rejecting the prohibitionist model.

Some are using once-taboo words like "legalisation". All agree the debate must be grounded in "realism".

Fundamentally, this means dispensing with utopian notions such as the complete eradication of the drug market, adopting instead a pragmatic approach; managing the situation and seeking alternative ways of confronting it.

In an op-ed in The Guardian on April 7, 2012, the Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina — less than five months into his term — wrote: "Guatemala will not fail to honour any of its international commitments to fighting drug trafficking. But nor are we willing to continue as dumb witnesses to a global self-deceit.

"We cannot eradicate global drug markets, but we can certainly regulate them as we have done with the alcohol and tobacco markets. Drug abuse, alcoholism and tobacco should be treated as public health problems, not criminal justice issues."

Pérez Molina is a military man, he is anti-drugs, but he is also prepared, he says, to abandon ideology for the good of his people.

Guatemala is wedged in the transit route between the world's biggest drug producers in South America and the biggest consumer market, in North America.

Guatemala also has one of the world's highest murder rates; Central America is rivalled only by Africa as the world's most dangerous region.

Pérez Molina is not the only Latin American leader to say enough is enough.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos and his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderón — both conservatives and key regional allies of the US — are among other Latin American leaders in favour of a new pragmatism on drug policy.

They too have ample moral authority to propose a paradigm shift.

Colombia is the world's biggest cocaine producer — though neighbouring Peru appears to be challenging for this dubious honour — and drug dollars fill the coffers of the rebel groups with whom the government has been fighting a four-decade civil conflict. Billions of dollars of US aid for anti-drug initiatives such as Plan Colombia have not changed this.

“Guatemala will not fail to honour any of its international commitments to fighting drug trafficking. But nor are we willing to continue as dumb witnesses to a global self-deceit.”

Mexican drug cartels dominate the drug trade and control large swathes of the country. President Calderón declared war on the cartels after taking office in 2006 and despite some high-profile victories in terms of arrests, killings and drug confiscation, the war has cost 50,000 lives without seriously weakening the cartels.

On the weekend of April 14 and 15, 2012, President Santos hosted 33 leaders from the Americas — including US President Barack Obama — in the Colombian city of Cartagena at the Sixth Summit of the Americas. With President Santos and others keen to discuss drug policy — not to mention the thorny issue of including Cuba in future summits — it was a less than comfortable affair for President Obama. (He could have done without the embarrassment of 11 US Secret Service agents being sent home over a prostitution scandal.)

Drawn on the drug issue, President Obama's response reflected both a general softening of US rhetoric and its unwillingness to veer from its course.

"I don't mind a debate around issues like decriminalization [but] I personally don't agree that's a solution to the problem," he said.

Because of the lack of consensus on drug policy — and Cuba — there was no joint statement issued at the conclusion of the summit. The best President Santos could offer was that the leaders had "agreed on the need to analyse the results of the current [drug] policy that is implemented in Latin America and to explore new approaches to strengthen the fight and implement more effective methods".

In fact, in Latin America there already has been a big collective step in this direction with Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Uruguay all decriminalising drug possession for personal use.

As former Mexican foreign minister, Jorge Castañeda, now a professor of politics and Latin American studies at New York University, wrote recently: "Those who used to say that they favoured a debate on the issue now support legalisation; those who opposed it, now accept the need for debate; and those who continue to oppose legalisation do so on moral, rather than rational grounds."

<p>Photo by Ella Rubeli</p>

Photo by Ella Rubeli

War on drugs proved addictive too.

While serving presidents such as Santos, Pérez Molina and Costa Rica's Laura Chinchilla are championing the reform of drug policy, it is three former Latin American presidents who have done most to break the taboo on the issue and move the debate from the academic and nongovernmental sphere to the political sphere.

Former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and César Gaviria of Colombia are the founding commissioners of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose June 2011 report boldly urged political leaders and public figures to "have the courage to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately", namely that repressive drug strategies have demonstrably failed.

The 19 commissioners also include a powerhouse array of other ex-presidents, intellectuals as well as social and business leaders.

The commission was born of an earlier regional incarnation, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which in February, 2009, flagged the idea that the long-term solution for the drug problem is to drastically reduce the demand for drugs in the main consumer countries.

Speaking with The Global Mail, ex-President Cardoso — who chairs the commission — says the best way to do this is to take users out of the criminal system and use social and health services to treat them and convince them not to take drugs.

"I had a conversation with one of the main leaders in Colombia and he said, 'We are killing the drug dealers and drug producers but we are not destroying the contraband [or] the traffic, because when we kill one there is always another one and another one to replace them because it is so profitable,'" Cardoso recounts.

"We have to accept the reality that market laws are operating here, so instead of concentrating the fight on trying to eradicate production, control the cartels and destroy crops, it could be more effective to concentrate on trying to decrease consumption as has been done successfully with tobacco.

“We cannot eradicate global drug markets, but we can certainly regulate them as we have done with the alcohol and tobacco markets. Drug abuse, alcoholism and tobacco should be treated as public health problems, not criminal justice issues.”

"Why not approach it the other way around and try to convince people not to take drugs?"

This logic has been hard to sell — particularly in the US — because "drugs" is such a loaded word. It may be politically safe to talk of regulating tobacco and alcohol — both of which are arguably more harmful to humans than, say, marijuana — but the idea of applying this policy to other drugs tends to translate as a blanket endorsement of drug use. For this reason governments have long simply avoided the issue.

Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC on March 29, 2012, Guatemalan Secretary of Planning Fernando Carrera put it like this: "There is a gorilla in the room we need to talk about."

Presenting his president's position, he was careful to clarify that Guatemala does not advocate the complete liberalisation of drugs.

Cardoso is similarly cautious with his language: "It is not easy to say 'Let's legalise.' I prefer to say, 'Let's regulate the use of all kinds of drugs.'

"It is important to create a culture of regulating the consumption of drugs, but to always condemn use, as we do with tobacco and alcohol.

"In the case of cocaine you have to be very strict in the regulation. There are people that are dependant on cocaine and in that case it is better to offer cocaine under the control of the government, through hospitals or social agencies."

<p>Photo by Ella Rubeli</p>

Photo by Ella Rubeli

Latin America produces most of the world's cocaine and the United States is the biggest consumer market.

He says that incarcerating drug users is always counterproductive as "you learn a lot more about drugs and other crimes in jail than [outside]".

More than this, by keeping users out of the criminal system and instead exposing them to health and social services, you increase the chance of rehabilitation.

By way of example, Cardoso cites Portugal's experiment with decriminalisation. Faced with the highest number of drug-related AIDS deaths in Europe, in 2001 Portugal decriminalised the use of all drugs. Drug use is seen as a health problem and users are referred to a "dissuasion commission" and offered therapy and treatment.

"By decriminalising, they are saying drug users will not go through the judicial system or the police system and the results in Portugal are quite impressive, the use of drugs is decreasing."

While Cardoso acknowledges that Washington will not seriously entertain a drug policy overhaul in the short term, he is less understanding when it comes to the UN.

He criticises the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs's (CND) zero consumption goal as "unrealistic". His colleague at the Global Commission on Drug Policy, former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss, goes further saying the UN approach simply does not acknowledge scientific evidence.

"The UN should use science as a basis and seek consistency on its approach to drug issues, listening to bodies such as the World Health Organisation and UNAIDS, that call for harm reduction and public health as the guidelines for drug policies," she says.

As for the US, Washington's acknowledgment that the drug policy debate is "legitimate" is little more than lip service. Perhaps there too, it'll take former presidents to lead the way.

In the 2011 documentary Breaking the Taboo, which also includes Cardoso and Dreifuss, ex-presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton both recognise the failure of US drug policy.

The latter, with 20/20 hindsight, says: "There are a lot of things that I would have done differently. I think that my opposition to needle exchange and medical marijuana when I was president, both were wrong."

Nixon would be turning in his grave.

3 comments on this story
by Carlos

"the war on drugs" was never meant to actually stop drug trafficing or use. The primary purpose was to inflate the price, precisely as prohibition did with alcohol earlier last century.
So for those who followed that purpose, this particular "war" has been a resounding success.
I think 'decriminalising' and 'legalising' notions are missing the point. The is no good reason that any government authority/agency need interfere with a personal choice. It is, in fact, none of their damn business.

April 25, 2012 @ 3:12pm
by Azrael

Just regarding your last comment about Nixon. He'll always be remembered for the way he went out, and for his brutal treatment of student protestors, but drug policy is one matter where he actually stands tall compared to his predecessors. Yes, it sounds like heresy to many modern readers, but Nixon actually did some things right (amongst other things, being the last of the US's traditional conservatives to hold out against the neo-con takeover of the party).

You know when the last time was that the US state spent more of its 'anti-drugs' money on research and education than on policing? Nixon's presidency. He was also the last (and only) president to expressly treat drugs as primarily a problem to be solved through health and research, with punishment (the sentences being far milder than what is usually dealt out today, the decriminalisation of minor amounts of marijuana aside) being thought of by his administration as a temporary stop-gap.

That's actually why we have all those absurd propaganda films ('reefer madness') and hairbrained pseudo-research ('marijuana makes people into communists'). Yes, they're laughable now, but they exist because Nixon spent most of his anti-drugs war-chest commissioning mountains of medical, psychological and sociological research - obviously the more bizarre ones are better remembered than the more productive work done during that time.

If later presidents had continued Nixon's strategy, we'd have seen less 'reefer madness' propoganda as the research would have had time to pay dividends - time that Nixon's administration was willing to give it. We may have seen a much earlier decriminalisation of marijuana, and anti-drug campaigns similar to Australia's anti-tobacco laws (making the industry financially unviable through strict liability for any medical harm linked to their product, and preventing marketing or sale to children).

I know it's controversial to defend Nixon on ANY topic, but as an academic with more than a passing interest in both criminology and medical ethics, I feel obliged to correct the record on one of Nixon's few positive qualities.

April 30, 2012 @ 5:17pm
by Nic

I totally agree with the article. Very interesting summary.
Another interesting 'fact' is that drug consumers (mostly based in richer countries) never seem to think about the social impact of their consumption - not for themselves, but in the production countries.
As I think some form of legalisation would be the right way, I'm curious of the 'how':
- How can drug production and consumption be effectively regulated?
- How should the education system approach the issue?
- Who should have control of the production?
- How can consumers get steered away from the more harmful drugs?
- What would be the economic effects for Latin America (higher tax income, lower police expenses, saver countries will attract more foreign investment etc.)?
- Would the LatAm countries be able to legalise (and nationalise) drug production without any change in policies in North America?

In my opinion is not the if but the when and how...

May 8, 2012 @ 6:28pm
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