13 February 2009

Rethink War On Drugs, Say Ex-Presidents

Three former Latin American Presidents, two among the continent’s most famous authors, Mario Vargos Llosa and Paulo Coelho, and a host of newspaper editors, ex-diplomats and generals have asked for a rethink on the “war on drugs” and suggested legalising marijuana for personal use.

Latin America is the world’s largest exporter of cocaine and marijuana and is increasingly producing opium, heroine and synthetic drugs. It also has a growing population of addicts. The continent has the highest murder rates in the world for young people, El Salvador leading the pack with 92.3 per 100,000, followed by Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala and Brazil.

The billions spent fighting the drugs trade has not significantly disrupted production, supply or street prices and has instead taken money away from public services. According to former President Fernando Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and César Gaviria of Colombia, it merely transfers the problem to somebody else’s backyard.

Peru and Bolivia were the major cocaine-growing countries in the Nineties where coca leaves were converted to paste, smuggled to Colombia where it was converted to cocaine in the jungle laboratories and then shipped out. Coca cultivation boomed in Colombia when supplies from these two Andean nations were disrupted and all manner of armed groups, from paramilitaries blessed by the military to Leftist guerrillas, turned protectors of coca growers and drug traffickers. The dismantling of the major Colombian drug cartels in turn gave Mexican gangs the space to move in and now a vicious drug war has engulfed the country.

The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy says the drug trade has criminalised politics and politicised crime. Drug cartels have infiltrated state institutions to the extent that Mexico’s former representative to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime was arrested for alleged links to a narcotics gang. It has corrupted politicians, the judiciary and the police. Turf wars between the gangs have led to a proliferation of small arms and sky-high murder rates affecting mostly the young and the poor.

The former Presidents hold the USA and the Europeans responsible as well, saying their inability to control domestic consumption is causing mayhem in Latin America. But their major criticism is against the USA for foisting a punitive model on Latin America and on international conventions which had once envisioned ending the global consumption of opium in 15 years and marijuana in 25.

The prohibitionist approach favoured by Washington, particularly its hard line on drug users, criminalises the marginalised, inflates the prison population and feeds police corruption while doing nothing to dismantle the cartels. It also stigmatises Indian tribes who use coca leaf for their rituals and religious ceremonies. The Bolivian President, Evo Morales, himself an Aymara Indian, was targeted by the Bush administration for advocating a “coca yes, cocaine no” policy.

The commission has asked for a “paradigm shift”, citing Colombia as the major example of an unproductive and damaging drug war which has as its legacy a lingering guerrilla war, proliferating paramilitary gangs and the displacement of millions from the countryside to urban shanty towns where drug lords rule, and all this without even containing the cultivation and trade in cocaine.

They suggest that Latin America adopt the liberal European model which views drug consumption as a public health issue and that the continent’s governments make resources available for innovative campaigns against drug use on the lines of proven anti-smoking campaigns, provide commercially feasible alternatives for farmers and involve the people in designing alternative work opportunities and better education. And they want the decriminalising the personal consumption of marijuana, saying the taboo on discussing radical change needs to be broken.

The first reaction has predictably been negative. Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, who has persistently denied lingering accusations that he was involved in the trade and whose regime depends in large measure on the billions that it gets from the Plan Colombia programme, has refused rethinking policy on marijuana use. Neither is his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderon, likely to demur as he too eyes U.S. largesse to combat the epidemic of drug-related violence in his country.

The commission perhaps anticipated this, suggesting that Latin American public opinion is shifting and that the Obama administration might be more willing to do a rethink. In which case, Uribe, Calderon and co can be counted on to fall in line.

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