Latin American Officials say Drug War is a Failure

Former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico say U.S. drug policy is a failure

Former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico on Wednesday called on the U.S. to start treating drug use as a public health problem, to open up a dialog about drug policy, and to decriminalize the use of marijuana.

The three presidents -- Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico -- are among the 17 members of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy. During a press conference Feb. 11, coinciding with the release of a new commission report, Cardoso said that all "available evidence indicates that the War on Drugs is a failed war," and that, worldwide, drug policy needs to "move to a new paradigm." That won't happen, however, unless the U.S. breaks the "taboo" that keeps lawmakers from talking about alternative drug control strategies.

Drug trafficking is driven largely by demand in the U.S., the officials said, and yet U.S. officials refuse to listen to the rest of the world -- and in particular Latin America -- about ways to deal with the drug "problem" and to lower demand. And because the U.S. puts so much pressure on the rest of the world to handle drug policy the way the U.S. wants it handled, Gaviria noted, all debate is stifled.

When you consider that half of all cocaine interdiction efforts happen in Latin America, it is impossible to say that Latin American countries don't have a right to call for debate: "We have the right to discuss U.S. policy," Gaviria said, "because without [us] there is no policy. We have the right to demand a debate." (Gaviria also noted that the much despised U.S. policy known as Plan Colombia, which includes spraying coca fields with toxic chemicals that seep into drinking water and food supplies, was clearly "not effective in reducing drug supply in the U.S." -- contrary to what the federal narcos, and in particular what former White House drug czar John Walters would have you believe.) A good way to open up the debate on alternative drug strategies, he said, is to decriminalize personal use of marijuana. "By itself that is a step toward opening up the discussion."

The officials also said that the U.S. practice of sending drug offenders to prison is poor policy. "The U.S. puts everyone in jail -- practically the only country that is doing that," said Cordoso. "We need to ask, is that really helping the reduction of consumption?" The Commission would like to see more emphasis on drug treatment and education. (In this respect, Gaviria said, European countries have made substantial progress, but have not yet done enough to reduce consumption.)

The U.S.'s failed policies have had serious effects on Mexico, where cartel control in Juarez, for example, has exploded. Last year, nearly 1,600 people in that city were murdered. Weapons move freely south of the border, while drugs continue to move north to satisfy demand. "What is going on in Mexico is dramatic," said Cardoso. Yet officials in the U.S. shy away from debate over drug policy because they're too afraid of being called "soft" on drugs and crime, said Gaviria. That, they said, must change. Indeed, when the El Paso city council last month sought to amend a resolution pledging solidarity with its beleaguered sister city by adding a provision calling for a national debate on drug policy, the effort was met with censorship: U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes and five members of the El Paso delegation to the Texas house sent letters to city officials, urging them to reject the provision, calling it, in effect, irresponsible. Perhaps the officials should now write to the Commission to express the same sentiment?

The Commission report comes just one month before a meeting in Vienna where United Nations members will strategize a 10-year plan for international drug policy. Commission members on Wednesday said they hope the report will help inform the conversation -- and, hopefully, help chart a new, public-health oriented, course of action.

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