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An end to the war on drugs?

For five decades the world has been locked into a drug prohibition policy that has failed and backfired.

Drug production and sales are booming, and addiction is rampant. The US street price of cocaine is 74% lower than it was 30 years ago. Meanwhile trillions of dollars have been funnelled into organised crime cartels that are corrupting law enforcement and gutting democracies.

These facts have been known for years, but finally politicians across Latin America are speaking out against this crazy, costly mess – and demanding a ceasefire. If they push it through, this could have unimaginably positive consequences across the world.

What’s new?

The paradigm is still "war on drugs as usual". On Monday, Mexican authorities announced the killing of a top drug boss, head of the brutal Zetas cartel. This is the sort of false victory that has characterised the war, with the body of one boss the stepping stone for the next to ascend.

But last week, a radical peace plan of sorts was unveiled. Presidents Felipe Calderon of Mexico, Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia joined forces to demand major changes to the UN’s drug policy, denouncing the failed policies of the past and calling for a new way forward, including regulation of drugs.

Their call has particular weight as the Guatemalan and Colombian presidents both come from conservative military and defence backgrounds. It has weight, too, because their three countries are on the front line in this war. Their demand for a new approach would have been unimaginable even five years ago. It is a major step.

Why has this change happened? Because the evidence is no longer deniable and, critically, because public attitudes have shifted. Politicians have been afraid that promoting a new approach would be electoral suicide. But now that a majority of people are fed up with the violence the drug wars have brought, their leaders have finally broken the taboo.

Drugs, guns and money

For 50 years the modus operandi of the global war on drugs has been to fight traffickers and lock up addicts. The US has championed this strategy, in word and action, by getting "tough on crime" within its borders and arresting hundreds of thousands of its own citizens (who happen to be largely poor and non-white) for using, possessing or trafficking drugs.

This racist, backward policy has made the US the leading drug jailer in the world. A quarter of its prison population has been incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses. And these are not even hard drugs: in 2010, almost half of all drug arrests were for possession of small quantities of marijuana – a total of 750,000 arrests.

By refusing to treat addiction as a health problem, the US has made addiction a health crisis. An American who injects drugs is seven times more likely to be HIV positive than a Swiss user. In large part due to drug abuse, up to 50,000 of Texas’s 150,000 prison inmates are infected with hepatitis C. And thousands die needlessly every year.

Of course, the disastrous effects of the drug war have been worst for those living beyond the southern border of the US. Successive US administrations have pushed the belligerent drug policy to Latin American leaders by sending in military aid and US special forces. Governments have followed suit, clamping down hard and declaring their own war against producers and traffickers.

The toll has been massive, with upwards of 60,000 people killed in Mexico alone during Calderon’s six year military crackdown on drugs. A combination of corruption and incapacity has left governments and institutions paralysed. In Guatemala, a country with one of the highest (largely drug related) murder rates in the world, up to 98% of murders are never investigated or never make it to court.

The impacts extend far beyond the Americas – with southeast Asia, Afghanistan and west Africa also ravaged by the international drugs trade. Globally, cartel bosses' profits have grown to an estimated $330bn a year – making the drug trade the world’s largest illegal commodity market.

And the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported this year that demand for and availability of drugs is on the rise, with the global number of illicit drug users expected to increase 25% by 2050.

Seeds of change

So we know that the war on drugs has failed. But we also know what works. Switzerland, Portugal, the Netherlands and Australia have taken an alternative path and have not seen the explosion in drug use that so many drug war proponents have darkly predicted.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalised the possession of drugs for personal use. The result has been an increased uptake of treatment and a reduction in drug-related deaths and drug-related crime. While there has been a very slight increase in overall levels of drug use, the number of problematic users and young users has dropped sharply.

In other words, the evidence has been there for the taking. In 2009, former presidents from Latin America, who had seen the evidence in office but been advised to keep quiet, spoke out and deemed the war on drugs an outright failure. And in 2010 even the US, typically steadfast in its blind pursuit of these violent policies, admitted that their disastrous course was a dead end, conceding that prior policies had been unsuccessful and that the problem had only got worse.

And finally, in 2012, sitting heads of state from Latin America have taken up the call and called for decriminalisation. The Uruguayan government is in the lead now, proposing a new law that would give the state control over the sale of marijuana.

Towards a real solution

Defining and implementing sane and just policies won't be easy. A series of three UN conventions effectively bind countries to the current crazy approach. In addition to breaking these chains, new international agreements will be needed to cement and coordinate a new approach.

But Mexico's Calderon, Guatemala's Molina and Colombia's Santos have now made it clear that the time had long since come for the UN to consider new ways to combat drug trafficking. Their joint statement released last week states clearly that decriminalisation is on the table, "the United Nations should ... analyse all available options, including regulatory or market measures, in order to establish a new paradigm." These are powerful words that are sending shock waves across the Americas.

The federal governments in the US and Canada are not likely to go along willingly in the short term. But even there, growing frustration in a number of US states and Canadian provinces is putting national governments under pressure. In fact, November's US election could see three states (Colorado, Oregon and Washington State) become the first states in the US to legalise small amounts of marijuana. If states in the US and nations across Latin America pass laws that favour a new approach, a debate and action will be forced upon the UN.

All the evidence suggests that a new approach could reduce the deaths, crime, corruption and tragedy of addiction. The five disastrous decades of war speak for themselves. The economic, social, political and human costs have been astronomical. The only thing that is getting cheaper is the drugs.

The change can’t come soon enough.

Learn more: Check out the trailer for The House I Live in, a Sundance-winning documentary that takes a look at the lasting effects “America’s longest war” has had in the US:

Sources: New York Times, Financial Times, Guatemala Times, ACLU, Norml, Avaaz, Global Post, City Mayors, Count the Costs, Guardian, Beckley Foundation, Christian Science Monitor, CBS News