Is the war on drugs over? -

Is the war on drugs over?

Central American leaders are looking to legalization, to America’s chagrin

An end to the war on drugs?

Marco Ugarte/AP

The Obama administration has been criticized in the past for not paying enough attention to Latin America. That’s changed abruptly in recent weeks, with senior officials rushing to head off a rebellion that’s threatening to upend the war on drugs.

What has the administration spooked is the rising chorus in Latin America of politicians publicly questioning the sense of the prohibition on drugs. At this weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, several Central American leaders will outline their views on what they say is a failed war. And the Obama administration has had no choice but to allow discussion of drug legalization at the summit for the first time, although it tried to forestall it. “We are ready to discuss the issue to express our opinion on why it is not the way to address the problem,” said Mike Hammer, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for public affairs.

Calls for legalizing narcotics have been heard before in Latin America, but they previously came mostly from fringe or retired front-rank politicians. In 2009, the former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia blasted the war on drugs and demanded alternative approaches. But in recent months, for the first time, sitting presidents have been questioning the efficacy of continuing with full-scale prohibition, including the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica.

All of them are facing violent incursions from expansionary Mexican cartels, and are struggling to contain spiralling drug-related violence and staggering crime rates, the consequences of the region becoming a favoured transit route for cocaine and heroin processed in South America and smuggled north to consumers in the United States. Decriminalizing narcotics would deprive the region’s mafias of the profits that enrich and empower them, the leaders argue.

The region’s hardline drug warriors are Mexico’s Felipe Calderón, who has waged a five-year-long military-based campaign against his country’s powerful drug cartels that has left more than 50,000 dead, and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, who has been no friend to traffickers. But even they have voiced sympathy with calls for a rethink, and shocked Washington last year by raising the idea of legalizing soft drugs.

Indeed, the Mexican president argued that “if drug consumption appears impossible to stop, then the decision makers should look for more options—including market alternatives—in order to reduce the astronomical earnings of criminal organizations.” Santos went further in March by initiating legislation to permit the possession of small quantities of marijuana and cocaine for personal use.

In Central America—the region has the highest homicide rate in the world and is more deadly than Afghanistan when it comes to killings—the viewpoint that the war on drugs is producing meagre results at great costs is spreading. Advocates of a narcotics rethink got a boost in February when the new Guatemalan president, Otto Pérez Molina, a right-wing former army general, became a convert. The Guatemalan leader, who had promised an “iron fist” against crime when he entered office the previous month, stunned the Obama administration by announcing that the U.S. inability to cut drug consumption left his country no option but to consider legalizing narcotics.

Pérez Molina’s conversion emboldened fellow Central American leaders, who declined to change their tune when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was dispatched in early March to meet them in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. The Central American rebels heard the vice-president out when he said that the U.S. wouldn’t be legalizing drugs and remained determined to assist them in defeating transnational cartels with funding and intelligence sharing. But after the meeting the leaders continued to push for at least a discussion about legalization at the Summit of the Americas. All seven Central American states, plus Mexico, Colombia and the Dominican Republic, have jointly declared that “if [cutting demand] is not possible, as recent experience demonstrates, the authorities of consumer countries must explore all possible alternatives.”

The Obama administration has not helped its cause by proposing, in its 2013 federal budget, to cut counter-narcotics aid to Latin America by 16 per cent. Regional leaders argue this is the reverse of what Washington should be doing. If there’s to be no legalization, they say, then the U.S. and consuming countries should contribute much more to the security forces in the region and fund improvements in education and health.

No one expects the leaders at the summit to agree to end the war on drugs. Since the meeting in Tegucigalpa, the Obama administration has lobbied regional leaders hard behind the scenes, and to some effect. A March 24 meeting called by Pérez Molina for regional leaders to discuss drug legalization ahead of the Cartagena get-together was undermined by a disappointing turnout. Alhough they did send senior officials, the presidents of Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua stayed away, amid speculation that their absence was due to U.S. pressure.

Nevertheless, former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda believes that while summits of the Americas tend to be talking shops that fail to accomplish much of significance, every now and then the multilateral get-together “actually helps to place key issues on the hemispheric table.” He suspects the narcotics question could be one of them. “Whereas only a smattering of political leaders and intellectuals advocated legalization in the past, nowadays officials are coming ‘out of the closet’ on drugs in droves,” he notes.

The legalization issue is likely to remain potent whatever happens in Cartagena, if for no other reason than July’s Mexican presidential elections. That vote could lead to a significant toning down of Calderón’s militarized war on drugs, with two of the three leading candidates who are vying to succeed the president vowing to withdraw the military from the fight. A third candidate, Josefina Vásquez Mota, of Calderón’s ruling National Action Party, is suffering in the opinion polls because of the increasing unpopularity of a drug war that seems to have no end.

Legalization advocates argue that Calderón’s war is an example of how, when counter-narcotics efforts are waged uncompromisingly with the full weight of the military and police, the effects can be the reverse of what’s desired. And even if such efforts showed some success, the Central American states have nothing like the firepower of the Mexican military—Costa Rica doesn’t even have a standing army. Indeed, they are already outgunned: Mexico’s Los Zetas cartel, infamous for its massacres and beheadings of rivals, has, according to Guatemalan officials, turned much of the country’s largest department, El Petén, into a strategic stronghold.

Faced with better-armed and better-funded foes, Pérez Molina insists, “We must end the myths, the taboos, and tell people you have to discuss [legalization], discuss it, debate it.”


Is the war on drugs over?

  1. Prohibitionists dance hand in hand with every possible type of criminal one can imagine.

    An unholy alliance of ignorance, greed and hate which works to destroy all our hard fought freedoms, wealth and security.

    We will always have adults who are too immature to responsibly deal with tobacco alcohol, heroin amphetamines, cocaine, various prescription drugs and even food. Our answer to them should always be: “Get a Nanny, and stop turning the government into one for the rest of us!”

    Many of us who wish to see an end to prohibition, but not because we wish to use drugs – they are already available 24/7. We wish to see proper legalized regulation because we are witnessing on a daily basis the futility of this dangerous policy. ‘Legalized Regulation’ won’t be the complete answer to all our drug problems, but it’ll greatly ameliorate the crime and violence we are seeing on our streets.

  2. The CIA deals and traffics drugs, more than anyone else in the world.

    Start there if you want to know why the US is refusing to budge from their policy.

  3. Whatever the solution, here’s hoping that it will take into account the rights and needs of the indigenous peoples of the Americas; more than 10 percent of the population in “Latin” America, but still mostly forgotten about even as they suffer from transnational organized crime and attempted hijacking of their cause by avowed Marxist-Leninists linked to brown-shirted Iran. … President Obama has been good on this, but too often the burro-cracy likes to be told how wonderful it is before, or even without, doing the right thing.

  4. War on drugs: been there, done that. It doesn’t work and creates more serious problems (monetizing organized crime, violence, corruption, etc.). Let’s try something else.

  5. Unless and until the unending flow of dollars form the U.S. (and Canada) can be stopped it is both cynical and unfair to expect the people and governments of Mexico, Columbia, etc. to suffer the consequences of fighting the better equipped and better funded cartels.  Evidence has proven time and again that control efforts affect primarily the price of drugs – not the supply.

    We need to stop bowing to the evangelicals and the law and order nuts and begin using common sense.

  6. If I want cigarettes or booze, I have to walk into a publically controlled setting where proof of my identity can be immediately required for access. Age limitations are enforced and supply can be regulated.
    Meanwhile, I can go downtown in almost any major city in this country and score most types of illegal drugs quickly and easily, no matter who I am. The quality and purity is anyone’s guess.
    Now I understand the desire to send a strong message about the dangers of drugs and why people would be leery of sanctioning such behaviour. However, the subsequent loss of control, most notably our ability to limit access by children, seems a steep price to me for delivering that message through the legal system.
    Legality cannot change the fact that where there is demand, there is supply. Any fiscal conservative worth his salt knows that.
    So what then? We’re knowingly increasing access and decreasing control? And for what precisely? So we can look down our noses at people? Really? Risking our children for that? Really?
    That doesn’t even get into the mindless persecution aspects of criminalization. Marginalizing people so they’re less likely to seek help and are more at the mercy of organized crime. That one just blows my mind entirely.
    So when do we get over the tribal moralism and start governing with our heads people? Any time soon you think?
    I bloody hope so. This is getting ridiculous.

  7. As with torture, prohibition is a grievous crime against humanity. If you support it, or even simply tolerate it by looking the other way while others commit it, you are an accessory to a very serious moral transgression against humanity.

    The United States re-legalized certain drug use in 1933. The drug was alcohol, and the 21st amendment re-legalized its production, distribution and sale. Both alcohol consumption and violent crime dropped immediately as a result, and very soon after, the American economy climbed out of that same prohibition engendered abyss into which it had foolishly fallen.  

    “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.” 
    – Winston Churchill

  8. The most powerful force against legalization is motivated not by misguided morality or by a primitive  social engineering ideology, but by greed. When I was hanging out with pot dealers, back in my university days, a dealer doubled his money on every batch. 

    With markup like that, there is no respectable Big Money manager in this moral universe who would not try to get a piece of the action.  Big Money fears the legalization of drugs even more than they fear taxation. 

    And let’s not forget the opportunities for investment offered by the drug enforcement industry. And the prison industry. 

    The drug war doesn’t make any sense at all, but it sure is good for Business.

    • I think this is the first step in mustering up a justified invasion to gain control of the drug trade. Followed by this will be an over throw or merger of government all a design to introduce a continental currency equivelant to the Euro.

  9. It is clear that mr Harper and mr Obama entered the south American summit with their minds already made up. They obviosly do not feel the pain they are feeling in Mexico! Their solution is too contribte money and military for greater security, the cartels have way more money than Canada and USA have, I think that its probably around 146 billion a year how can they compete with that kind of cash. I was hoping that they would both use the brains that they thy were given, but that did not happen here is what should have happened, they sould have decriminalisd and legalized maujuana only. They could have taxed it and put all that money into our own coffers. And to take it one step furter they could create jobs by growing it in our own countries taking it out of the hands of the cartels. Allowing them to concentrate on the harder drugs like cocain and herion

  10. If they legalize drugs, it doesn’t mean I will start taking them
    WAKE UP America.

  11. Go your own way… you have 100 years of proof that ‘American style’ prohibition does not work.