Should Latin America End the War on Drugs?

Should it? That’s the question asked in today’s ‘Room for Debate’ over at the New York Times. Well, depends. Only if it does not want to persist in its present commitment to the expensive, counterproductive and catastrophic-to-civil-liberties course of action that the United States is currently pursuing.

The real question–as most would acknowledge–is not whether Latin America should end the war on drugs, but whether the US will let it. South of the border, the legalization of drugs as a policy serious option remains in hock to the larger crisis of US-Latin American relationships: the oversized dependence of the region on US aid. Furthermore, the massive law-and-order-enforcement-industrial complex that derives its raison d’etre from the whack-a-mole escapades that are its forte, is certainly not going to be favorably inclined. Military advisers to conduct quasi-civil wars in rainforests and Andean highlands, the expanding and sizeable drug-war related portion of the budgets of the FBI, CIA and DEA, all speak against the plausibility of the US ever changing its stance.

In this context, the visible pronouncements–earlier this year in April– of Latin American leaders–a veritable insurgency–came as a pleasant surprise:

The very word “legalization” has been taboo for so long that it was a shock to hear it mentioned as a sensible option by unimpeachable allies of the United States like Juan Manuel Santos, president of [Colombia]; President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala; and Laura Chinchilla, president of the normally low-profile and peaceful nation of Costa Rica.

Given this trend of increasing consideration for the legalization option, the Latin American leadership summit in Cartagena promised interesting, possibly radical, action. The US–in drearily predictable fashion–had already made its opposition known. As Barack Obama stated the day before the summit:

 [L]egalizing and decriminalizing drugs would not eliminate the danger posed by transnational organized crime.”

Of course, that ‘transnational organized crime’ exists precisely because the US has exported its war on drugs, or rather, not so subtly, rammed it down the throats of Latin America. The drug war spreads across borders all too easily:

[Gautemala’s planning minister, Fernando] Carrera, a thoughtful and soft-spoken economist who has an MA in philosophy and political development from Cambridge, talked about the pernicious way the drug trade is never defeated when it is attacked, but simply migrates from one country to another, leaving a disaster in its wake. “What Mexico has done [during President Felipe Calderón’s five-year-old war against the drug trade] is to sweep the problem under the rug and all the way over to us, and in turn we swept it over to Honduras. Honduras is today one of the most violent countries in the world, and the principal thoroughfare for drugs on their way from the producing countries in the south to the consuming countries in the north.

(What was interesting about the Cartagena summit that followed was the grim focus by the US media on the Secret Service-n-prostitutes scandal, and on ‘Swillary.’ Indeed, had I not been reminded about Molina’s announcement and the US opposition to it, I might have forgotten about the pro-legalization initiative entirely, so engrossed was I by the salacious details of the Secret Service’s romps and the amazing news that adults drink beer after work.)

The US did not actively intervene at the summit to derail talk of legalization, but it did next the best thing: recommended its further ‘study.’ So, the final word for now–discussion of the legalization initiative is in the hands of the OAS (‘a recognized burial ground for sweeping initiatives of any kind’)–remains with the US President:

The United States is not going to legalize or decriminalize drugs…because doing so would have serious negative consequences, in all our countries, in terms of health and public safety.

Read that and weep. There is no way Obama can possibly believe it, yet parrot it he will, relentlessly, to the continued detriment of this country and its neighbors.

Note: All quotes are from Alma Guillermoprieto’s recent article in the New York Review of Books [linked to above in the reference to the pro-legalization announcement made by Latin American leaders].

4 thoughts on “Should Latin America End the War on Drugs?

  1. Yes. Take a que from Portugal who decriminalized all drugs. Incarceration rates fell, crime fell, and even drug use fell. It’s too expensive to have this type of policy.

    1. Atticus,

      Thanks for the comment. I think Portugal, Switzerland and Denmark have variants of this policy. The current war is just unsustainable, as you point out.

  2. My feeling is, at this point, the harm done trying to keep drugs illegal is greater than the harm that would be done by making them legal, and I speak as a parent of a teenager when I say this. The politics of drug legalization in the US make it impossible for any Democrat to take the lead, however. It has to be a Republican. I’m afraid legalization will not solve the problem of transnational criminal organizations. They are too big, too rich, and have committed too many murders to simply fade away if the drug market disappears. They’ll wind up in jail or dead if they lay down their arms. Which means they’ll find new crimes to commit. Oi.

  3. Peter: It’s a real set of Augean stables for sure. I think you might be right about the lead needing to come from a Republican though with their primary process, the chances of a reformist candidate coming through are slim to none. As for transational crime, I agree, legalization is only one piece of other kinds of structural reform that needs to happen. The article I linked to is well worth a read for that reason.

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