Latin American Leaders Say ‘No’ to U.S. Drug War

  (IPS) – A commission led by three former Latin American heads of state has called the 30-year U.S. "war on drugs" in Latin America a failure and urged a drastic change in policy.

The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy issued a report Wednesday, "Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift," which calls for the creation of a Latin American drug policy and proposes three specific actions under the new paradigm: treat addicts as patients in the public health system; evaluate decriminalisation of cannabis possession for personal use; and reduce consumption through public education campaigns primarily directed at youth.

"The available evidence indicates that the war on drugs is a failed war," former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso said in a conference call with reporters from Rio de Janeiro. "We have to move from their approach to another one."

The commission headed by Cardoso and former presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia calls on U.S. and Latin American governments to acknowledge the insufficiencies of current policy and to engage in a debate about new alternatives.

"They’re (the Commission) saying enough is enough," said John Walsh, senior associate for the Andes and Drug Policy at the Washington Office on Latin America. "There’s a real drug war weariness in Latin America and its bad enough to feel like a policy had been imposed, and its worse when the policy doesn’t work."

According to the report, Latin America remains the major global exporter of cocaine and cannabis, has become a growing producer of opium and heroin, and is developing the capacity to produce synthetic drugs.

"I think that it is absolutely crucial to have a rethinking of the drug policy," said Mike Shifter, vice president for policy and director of the Andean programme at the Inter-American Dialogue. "There’s no policy that has been invested in more that’s produced so little."

The report calls for a review of U.S. prohibitionist strategy, which it says has deficiencies, and a look at the benefits and drawbacks of the harm reduction strategy followed by the European Union (EU).

The levels of drug consumption continue to grow in Latin America while there is a tendency toward stabilisation in North America and Europe, according to the report.

The report cites Columbia and Mexico as nations where U.S. prohibitionist policies, despite the large investment of resources and loss of innocent lives, have failed to put an end to drug trafficking and narco-violence. It cautions other countries from adopting these kinds of policies and urges them to search for innovative alternatives.

The long-term solution for the drug problem is to drastically reduce the demand for drugs in the main consumer countries, the report states. As U.S. and European domestic markets are the main consumers of the drugs produced in Latin America, the report calls on the U.S. and EU to share the responsibility faced by Latin American countries to design and implement policies leading to an effective reduction in their levels of drug consumption.

The commission proposes that Latin American countries adopt several initiatives aimed at reforming drug war policies.

One such proposition is to change the status of addicts from drug buyers in the illegal market to patients cared for in the public health system. This will weaken the foundation of the drug business by reducing the demand for illegal drugs and lowering their price.

The report calls the convenience of decriminalising the possession of cannabis for personal use to be evaluated from a public health standpoint and on the basis of the most advanced medical science.

According to the report, available empirical evidence shows that the harm caused by cannabis is similar to the harm caused by alcohol or tobacco. It cites that most of the damage associated with cannabis use – including arrest and incarceration of consumers and the violence and corruption that affect all of society – is the result of the current prohibitionist policies.

The report calls the U.S. policy of massive incarceration of drug users questionable, both in terms of respect for human rights and its efficiency. That policy is not applicable to Latin America, given the penal system’s overpopulation and material conditions.

Rather, public policy should be targeted to fighting the most harmful effects of organised crime on society, such as violence, institutional corruption, money laundering, arms trafficking, and the control over territories and populations, the report states.

The commission urges Latin America to establish a dialogue with the U.S. government, legislators and civil society to jointly develop workable alternatives to the current war on drugs strategy. It sees the new administration of U.S. President Barack Obama as a unique opportunity to reshape a failed strategy and engage in the common search for more efficient and humane policies.

Analysts say the report opens up a debate which is badly needed, though it remains to be seen if it will have any effect on U.S. policy.

"There has been no signal at all from the Obama administration that I’ve seen that they’re really prepared to take serious review of this policy," said Shifter. "I think if Obama has a chance to focus on this he will be very sympathetic," he added.

"I think because of Mexico and the large investment the U.S. has in Columbia, the administration knows that finding a better way to deal with drug problems has to occur," said Walsh. "That doesn’t make it a top priority in the coming months."