The beginning of the end for the drug war?

There is no need to argue about the complete failure of the drug war. Repression has clearly been disastrous, filling jails, criminalizing the poor, destroying communities in most countries of the Americas. Once Colombia, now Mexico illustrates the drug war absurdity and irrationality. Voices are increasingly being heard everywhere in Latin America, both right and left, asking for an end to this nonsense; an expensive nonsense.

In the last 20 years, many Latin American governments, such as those of Argentina and Brazil, have relaxed their drug laws, mainly to control the growing jail population. Uruguay is now discussing a new global approach to the issue. President Mujica proposes to legalize marijuana (the state would produce and sale it to avoid smuggling to neighboring countries) and invest heavily to help individual addicted to pasta base (a drug similar to crack), being an important social problem. The idea is simple; move resources away from repressing ordinary citizens remove revenues out of organized crimes hands, and with these new resources help drug addicts and fight serious criminal activities. In diplomatic terms, many elected officials have called for legalization or de-criminalization of drug use, from Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Bolivia, etc. For example, the Ecuador president Rafael Correa said: “these laws are tough, north-americans imposed them on Latin America at the beginnings of the 90s: repressive, they sanction production, but they are not doing anything in their own countries to control drug use.” Even former president of Mexico and of Coca-cola, Vincente Fox has taken a similar position. For years, they have been asking for a “joint responsibility”, with the United-States, to a lesser extent Canada. Now, they are just rejecting the strategy as a whole. Nobody can put his head in the sand anymore; the drug war has become a joke.

These calls for new policies are mostly directed at the United-States. For two simple reasons: US governments have impulsed and forced on many Latin American countries this strategy –remember the Plan Colombia- and it constitutes the main market for drug trafficking, which creates most of the violence along its route (mostly Central America and Mexico). What is changing is the balance of power between the USA and Latin America. Fast growing economies, democracies in a consolidation process, Latin American countries are moving away from being the US backyard where Uncle Sam could dictate how things work. The debt and economic crisis, combined with a democratic president –especially in a second term, if Obama is re-elected-, make it less likely the United-States would want to invest more in fighting drug production south of its border or even resist changes.

The Uruguayan initiative is being discussed and seems to face some internal resistance. If it does go through and shows some positive results in the next few years, it could represent the best argument many Latin American leaders needed to elaborate a continental strategy to face drug use, production and trafficking with decriminalization of use, and maybe straightforward legalization. A growing desire for continental collaboration, as exemplify diverse institutions (UNASUR, MERCOSUR, ALBA, or even the OEA less and less dominated by the USA), might facilitate this alternative way. In my humble opinion, it seems clear that the actual paradigm will keep failing over and over again until some changes are made, at least to limit revenues thrown at organized crime; and if repression is used, at least target with more precision who should go to jail. Debates remain open en relation with decriminalization versus legalization, and which drugs we are talking about.

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