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Drugs in Latin America: time for a debate

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mexico_drugs_cocaine_432The message was loud and clear: “The global war on drugs has failed”. This damning indictment does not come from some friend of the drugs trade but from the Global Commission on Drug Policy. There is no doubt about the reputation of the Commission’s members: former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, former Colombian President César Gaviria, novelists Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, British entrepreneur Richard Branson, just to mention a few.

The report, published in June 2011, has opened a Pandora’s Box. Now, political leaders who until some time ago refused even to consider the possibility of debating decriminalisation of some drugs, have now changed their mind.

In the eve of this year’s Summit of the American, in April, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina wrote in the Observer: “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 alcohol and tobacco markets”.

President Pérez Molina knows what he is talking about. In 1992, he became the army’s intelligence chief. During his tenure of the job, he coordinated Guatemala’s role in the “war on drugs” alongside the USA. He admits that the whole strategy has been a failure. Indeed, the Guatemalan President put his money where his mouth is. In March, he hosted a summit of Central American nations called “New Routes Against Drug Trafficking.” In it, Pérez Molina, who has become the flag bearer of the debate on drugs, insisted on the need to place the debate in the centre of policy making in the region. Nicaragua and Honduras have been reluctant to accept the decriminalisation, but they still believe a discussion is needed.

This position is endorsed by two other Latin American Presidents: Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos and Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla. President Pérez Molina reminds us in his article that it’s no coincidence that both presidents have, in the past, had experience in ministries and departments related to the fight against drug traffic (Santos was Defence Minister and Chinchilla deputy minister for public security).

During the summit, the issue was discussed in private. Needless to say, President Barak Obama refused even to debate any alternative to the failed “war on drugs”. It is, however, too late to ignore the debate. The USA can no longer use its economic muscle to put down any dissenting opinions, but insisted instead that “drug traders would dominate certain countries if they were allowed to operate legally without any constraint.” This is, of course, not true and once again misconstrues the subject.

None of the Latin American leaders has proposed the legalisation of all drugs. They do not want cocaine and heroin sold in supermarkets or pharmacies. They simply believe that certain drugs for personal used could be decriminalised. The Global Commission on Drug Policy believe that drug users should not be prosecuted but treated as patients and not like criminals. The Commission also suggests that the legal regulation of marihuana, the same way tobacco and alcohol are regulated, would enable authorities to exercise better control over the market.

The Commission’s logic is simple: Regulation cuts the link between traffickers and consumers. Many traffickers encourage “customers” to consume ever more harmful drugs. From marihuana they move on to cocaine, crack cocaine or heroin.

In a blog published by former Presidents Gaviria, Zedilla and Cardoso in the Huffington post on 10 May, they argue that “Research has consistently demonstrated that marijuana is a less harmful drug than tobacco or alcohol. Regulation is not the same as legalization. This is a critical point. Regulation is a necessary step to create the conditions for a society to establish all kinds of restrictions and limitations on the production, trade, advertising and consumption of a given substance to deglamorise, discourage and control its use”.

The reasons for the sudden conversion of former hardliners, like Pérez Molina, are plain: Mexico’s drug war is spilling into Central America, threatening the very political stability of the region and progressively corrupting the police, the military (where they are directly involved) and large swathes of local and national government. In Guatemala, entire towns are under the control of the warring drug cartels who want to control the profitable route to the US market. Furthermore, the Organisation of American States (OAS) believes that drug traffic threatens democracy in the countries concerned.

There are also economic reasons. In Peru, which has become the leading producer of coca leaf, the raw material for the production of cocaine and crack cocaine, many peasants have been forced to swap their traditional crops for coca plantations. In Colombia, there is evidence that the huge numbers of peasants displaced by the war with the FARC and the actions of paramilitaries are being driven to plant coca (or other drug crops) as the only means of survival. Meanwhile, traditional food crops have become progressively less viable as imports of maize, soya, beans, cooking oil and other food staples from the US and other large producers destroy local markets. In this situation, coca is more profitable, is paid for in cash at the farm gate and involves no bureaucracy. Peasants’ need to survive is more imperative than legal or moral considerations.

The consequences of the drug trade are felt in all aspects of society: politics, economy, environment, culture. Years of demonization, however, make it difficult to convince people that it is time to debate the failure and possible solutions for the “war on drugs”. In any case, many of those who resisted the need to discuss the matter are now convinced that it is time to evaluate a 40-year lost “war”. And that can only been a good sign.