#11 youth
Kyra Sell

Legalize it? Latin America’s New Approaches to Drug Policy

At the 2012 America Summit in Cartagena de Indias in Colombia, an open and serious debate about liberalizing drug laws was on the agenda for the very first time. The USA was called out and criticised by its Latin American neighbours for contributing to the escalating violence.

Young people are disproportionally the victims of the drug problem in Latin America. According to the public prosecutor's office, around 3,600 minors are currently incarcerated in Mexico because of their ties to drug cartels. The REDIM network for children's rights in Mexico estimates that around 30,000 young people serve as curriers, snitches or killers for the narcos.

High youth unemployment, insufficient educational infrastructure in poor areas and the lack of perspectives that goes hand in hand with these are driving children and youths into the arms of the drug cartels that promise easy money. They are often paid with drugs for their work, which rapidly leads to addiction. Politics has responded with repressive measures. Instead of providing young people with opportunities and offering them alternatives, youths are stigmatized as criminals and often locked away to sit out long prison sentences. But this is not having the desired effect of reducing the problem. Instead violence is growing on both sides.

Drug use in the world's centres and in the USA in particular, continues to rise despite strict laws; criminality in the drug producing and transit countries has increased immeasurably. In Mexico over 55,000 people have died in the conflict between the state and the drug cartels in just the past six years. And Mexico is not alone; the much publicised and discussed war on drugs has resulted in too many victims to count. Every year El Salvador records 69 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants – for an overall population of seven million, this translates into a truly horrifying figure.

New approaches are needed

Now well-known politicians are finally beginning to see that the path of repression and prohibition taken thus far does not offer a solution to the complex drug problem in Latin America.

At the 2012 America Summit in Cartagena, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos called on the USA to take responsibility: "The battle against drugs and drug trafficking must be fought by everyone. The USA bears just as much responsibility as Colombia."

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a right-leaning ex-general, is also in favour of decriminalizing drugs, despite the fact that he spoke in favour of harder sanctions against the drug cartels during his campaign.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, president of Brazil from 1995 to 2002, convened a drug commission that is pushing internationally for a scientifically based discussion on harm reduction. It has suggested decriminalising drug addicts and focusing on the health aspects through information, prevention and treatment. The organization comprises a total of 19 members including former presidents César Gaviria (Colombia), Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Since his re-election in 2006, Bolivia's President Evo Morales and his Coca Sí, Cocaína No initiative have been working on decriminalizing the coca leaf to preserve the cultural heritage of the Andes. In January of this year the United Nations in New York lifted the ban on coca leaves for Bolivia with just 15 dissenting votes. Evo Morales assessed this decriminalization as a "broad recognition of our identity, our coca leaf and coca leaf chewing". As a next step Morales would like to be granted permission to export coca plants.

The smallest country in Latin America is taking the largest steps towards legalisation. In August of last year under the leadership of President José Mujica, Uruguay passed a bill that would legalise the consumption of cannabis. In future the government plans to grow cannabis and so take away the basis for the drug gangs' business.

"Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade."

Although cannabis has also already been legalized in the states of Washington and Colorado in the USA, Barack Obama continues to speak out strongly against liberalisation. While Hillary Clinton admitted that the US shared the blame for the violence in Latin America when she noted that: "Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade." But instead of speaking out in favour of liberalization, she promised additional payments of millions of dollars to fund the military's battle against drugs. This rigid stance persists despite the USA's negative experience with alcohol prohibition in the 30s when criminality became rampant and a man known as Al Capone rose to infamy.

International ban since 1961

To date the USA is the decisive dominant force in international drug policy. In 1961 it published the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. This agreement is based more on moral rather than scientific rational and which still governs the repressive drug policies of today. These international guidelines limit the use opiates, cocaine, the coca leaf, and cannabis to medical applications and research. All other types of consumption are punishable by law. This includes religious or cultural use, as is common in the Andean countries of Bolivia and Peru.

The agreement classifies the different substances according to their potential for harm. The everyday drugs used in Western countries, such as alcohol and tobacco, are not addressed at all, although both present greater health risks than illegal marihuana. No distinction was made between the coca leaf and the hard drug cocaine either, despite the coca leaf's important role in Andean culture. In 1995 a study from the World Health Organisation even showed that chewing coca leaves has no negative health effects. Despite disagreement and dissent, the convention has not been changed since it was introduced; to this very day advances and new scientific findings have been ignored.

The drug policy set out in the convention focuses on security policy aspects and as such is characterized by its solution-oriented vantage point. The main focus is on military action intended to limit availability. Solutions aimed at reducing demand in consumer countries are secondary. This means that the lion's share of drug policy measures are implemented in the drug-producing and transit countries, such as Bolivia and Mexico, and primarily affect the people living there.

A lucrative business

The call for the controlled liberalization of drug laws seems not that outlandish if we bear in mind that the current illegal status of drugs is exactly what really allows the business to flourish. It also makes the drug market one of the freest markets in the world. Without external control mechanisms, such as customs, taxes or quality control, the drug market cannot be influenced or restricted. The ban on drugs is what makes the business so lucrative thanks to risks associated with it. So the drug barons are interested in maintaining the status quo and continuing prohibition so as to maximize their profits.

In Mexico profits from the drug trade are estimated to be around 20 billion US dollars and as such the third largest economic factor in the country.

Here are a few figures that clearly illustrate the effects current drug laws are having on the profit margin: In Colombia a kilogram of cocaine costs around 2,340 US dollars. By the time that same cocaine has arrives in a city in northern Mexico, it is worth 12,500 US dollars, a five-fold increase. In the United States the same kilo goes for around 26,500 US dollars, ten times as much. The extreme risk and illegality drive prices up astronomically. In Mexico profits from the drug trade are estimated to be around 20 billion US dollars per year and as such is the third largest economic factor in the country.

The cost of our current drug policy is too high

Although drug consumption in Mexico is lower than in the industrialised countries, drugs have become one of the Mexican government's central problems. Over 50,000 armed forces were used to fight former President Calderón's war on drugs. The results have been disastrous: over 55,000 people have died so far since 2006. The cartels have invented new strategies and more brutal fighting techniques; violence has continued to spread into areas untouched before. The influence of the drugs cartels is increasingly expanding southward on the South American continent to Guatemala and El Salvador in particular

Prohibition renders states like Mexico, where corruption is already pervasive, even more unstable. The drug cartels depend on the cooperation of the police and government to pursue their illegal activities. Even the parties have been infiltrated. Intelligence reports estimate that between 55 and 75 per cent of all elections in Mexico are influenced by criminal organisations. Every year the drugs cartels pay around 350 million dollars in bribes to officials and police. The more severe the sanctions, the higher the extortion payments need to be to ensure collaboration.

Every year the drugs cartels pay around 350 million dollars in bribes to officials and police.

A ban intended to reduce availability shifts the focus to the production and transit countries, so that developing countries are disproportionally more affected by the repressive measures than consumer countries which number among the more economically powerful. This means repressive military operations in the respective countries weaken economic and democratic development along with the stability of rule of law.

The systematic destruction of drug plantations by spraying them with pesticides hits poor rural populations hardest, robbing them of their livelihood without offering a viable alternative. It also causes massive environmental damage without even meeting the goal of reducing the growing area. At best these simply move, in turn resulting in deforestation on a massive scale. The total area used to grow drug crops does not drop; it just shifts into formerly untouched areas.

The enormous cost of attempting to enforce drug laws is another point of critique: in just ten years, from 1997 to 2007, the USA invested around 31 billion US dollars in the war on drugs. The Mérida Initiative, whose funds primarily flow into Mexico, has cost 1.7 billion US dollars so far. All this money is invested in repressive operations and therefore not available for important prevention, information and rehabilitation measures.

Is decriminalisation the solution?

It has been shown that people who truly want to consume drugs will do so whether it is illegal or not. A relaxation of the drugs laws would decriminalize drug consumption. The innumerable military operations in the production countries would no longer be necessary, freeing up money for comprehensive information and prevention schemes. This would open up new perspectives for young people, many of whom currently see the drugs trade as their only option. Information and awareness could be increased. Revenue from drug taxes could be used to support such measures. The government would have the power to regulate the drug trade and prevent harmful contamination through quality controls. Additionally the drugs cartels' main source of income would collapse, which would decrease criminality. Liberalization would bring the actual goal back into the spotlight: to minimize the health damage caused by drugs. The focus would no longer be on political populism and security issues and would shift back to social and health policy issues.

One popular argument against liberalisation is the fear that humanity would sink into a drug-induced haze if drugs were legally available. But the experience of countries such as the Netherlands has demonstrated that this fear is unfounded.

The current policy has failed. The moral model of prohibition has resulted in the exact opposite of what it was intended to achieve. Drug dependency has not been curtailed and criminality has risen exponentially. The rethinking process currently underway in Latin America is the first important step towards an honest and more open drug policy.

A change in the current political situation can only take place on a global and multilateral level, since the drug problem is not limited by national borders and affects everyone, though not to the same extent. This means an isolated solution for Latin America is unthinkable. It remains to be seen if the USA will continue along the same repressive path in future or turn towards decriminalization.

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