A blue-ribbon commission of Latin American leaders has issued a report saying that the US-led war on drugs has failed and it is time to consider new policies, particularly treating drug use as a public health problem and decriminalizing marijuana. The report is an attempt to intervene not only in Latin American, US, and European drug policy debates, but also in the United Nations' ongoing 10-year review of global drug policies, which will culminate next month in a ministerial meeting in Vienna.
Latin America is the leading exporter of both cocaine and marijuana. As such, it has faced the ravages of heavy-handed American anti-drug interventions, such as Plan Colombia and earlier efforts to destroy the Bolivian coca crop, as well as the violence of drug trafficking organizations and politico-military formations of the left and right that have grown wealthy off the black market bonanza. And while the region's level of drug consumption has historically been low, it is on the rise.
"The main reason we organized this commission is because the available evidence indicates the war on drugs is a failed war," said Cardoso at a Wednesday press conference in Rio de Janeiro to announce the report. "We need a different paradigm to cope with the problem of drugs. The power of organized crime is undermining the very foundations of democracy in some Latin American countries. We must acknowledge that these policies have failed and we must break the taboo that prevents us from discussing different strategies."
In the report, the commission calls for more humane and effective drug strategies. It emphasizes the following broad themes:
- Treat drug use as a public health issue;
- Reduce consumption through information and prevention actions;
- Focus on enforcement against organized crime.
The commission also called on governments and civil society around the globe to "assess in the light of public health and advanced medical science the possibility of decriminalizing possession of marijuana for personal consumption."
"We need to break the taboo that's blocking an honest debate," Cardoso said, repeating one of the phrases of the day. "Numerous scientific studies show that the damage caused by marijuana is similar to that of alcohol or tobacco," said the well-respected former Brazilian leader.
"Decriminalization is only part of the solution," warned former Colombian President Gaviria. "You need to do what the Europeans are doing, which is helping addicts. That's what the US doesn't do; it just puts them in jail," he scolded. "You tripled the jail population in the US in the last 20 years because of prohibitionism. The half million people in jail because of drug consumption, is that reducing consumption?" he asked. "The excuse is that people commit crimes to get money, but you deal with that putting addicts under a doctor and helping them with their problem."
The commission has three objectives, said Gaviria. "We want to create a Latin American policy around the consumption of drugs, we want to promote a debate in the US -- we are very concerned that there is no real public debate on the politics of drug trafficking in US politics -- and we want the European Union countries to take more responsibility for drug consumption," he said. "They are not doing enough to reduce the consumption of drugs."
"This report represents a major leap forward in the global drug policy debate," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who addressed a commission session in Bogotá last September. "It's not the first high-level commission to call the drug war a failure, nor is it the first time any Latin American leader has criticized the prohibitionist approach to global drug control. But it is the first time that such a distinguished group of Latin Americans, including three highly regarded ex-presidents, have gone so far in their critique of US and global drug policy and recommendations for what needs to be done."
The commission report is on "the cutting edge" of the global drug policy debate, said Nadelmann. "This is evident in its call for a 'paradigm shift,' in its recognition of the important role of harm reduction precepts and policies, in its push for decriminalization of cannabis, and in its critique of 'the criminalization of consumption.'"
Now it is on to Vienna -- and beyond -- said commission members. It is past time for a new approach, not only in the US, but internationally, they said.
"We hope the meeting in Vienna will not produce a result like previous meetings, where they just kept pushing back the date on which drugs will disappear," said Rubem Cesar Fernandes of the civil society organization Viva Rio. "The main discussion in Vienna should be whether the world should adopt European harm reduction policies. Most Latin American countries are supporting the approach of dealing with this as a health problem, not a criminal one."
Fernandes looked with guarded optimism at the new Obama administration. "We hope the Obama administration will at least be able to open that possibility because now the US totally opposes harm reduction as good policy," he said. "The world is not moving to follow the US jail policy. The US needs to think about whether putting people in jail is really solving the problem."
"Discussions in Vienna are not enough," said Cardoso. "We need national debates in all our countries, as well as inside the US. A clear dialog with the US is very important. We will try to get in contact with the Obama administration."
And so the pressure builds, on both the UN and the US. Will it be enough to force dramatic changes in Vienna or Washington? Probably not yet. But the global prohibitionist consensus is crumbling, clearly if slowly.