War on Drugs: Why the US and Latin America Could Be Ready to End a Fruitless 40-year Struggle
Mexico's president Felipe Caldéron is the latest Latin leader to call for a debate on drugs legalization. And in the US, liberals and right-wing libertarians are pressing for an end to prohibition. Forty years after President Nixon launched the 'war on drugs' there is a growing momentum to abandon the fight
The birthday fiesta was in full swing at 1.30am when five SUVs pulled
up outside the house. Figures spilled from the vehicles and ran towards
the lights. They burst into the house and leveled AK-47s. "Kill them
all!" A shouted instruction, only three words, and the slaughter began.
and screams drowned the music. Some victims were cut down immediately,
others were caught as they tried to escape. By the time the killers left
there were 17 corpses, 18 wounded and 200 shell casings. Among the dead
was the birthday guest of honor, a man local media named only as Mota,
Mexican slang for marijuana.
The atrocity last month in Torreón,
an industrial city in the northern state of Coahuila, came amid
headlines shocking even by the standards of Mexico's
drug war. A sophisticated car bomb of a type never before seen in the
country; a popular gubernatorial candidate gunned down in the
highest-level political murder; and then last week the release of
official figures putting the number of drug war-related murders at
It was against this backdrop of bloody crisis that
President Felipe Calderón said something which could, maybe, begin to
change everything. He called for a debate on the legalization of drugs.
"It is a fundamental debate," he said. "You have to analyze carefully
the pros and cons and key arguments on both sides."
A statement of
the obvious, but coming from Calderón it was remarkable. This is the
president who declared war on drug cartels in late 2006, deployed the
army, militarized the city of Juárez and promised victory even as the
savagery overtook Iraq's. Calderón stressed that he personally still
opposed legalization, but his willingness to debate the idea was, for
some, a resounding crack in the international drug policy edifice.
is a big step forward in putting an end to the war," said Norm Stamper,
a former Seattle chief of police and now spokesman for the group Law
Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).
launched the war on drugs on 17 June 1971, a hard-line prohibition
policy continued by successive US presidents. Four decades later there
is growing momentum in the US and Latin America to abandon the fight and legalize drugs, or at least marijuana. There have been false dawns
before but many activists say the latest rays of sunlight are real.
In November, California
will vote on a plan - called Proposition 19 - to allow adults to
possess small amounts of marijuana and let local governments tax its
sale. Last week a cross-political lobby group encompassing Tea Party
libertarians and leftwing liberals founded a new organization, Just Say
Now, to support similar legalization across the US.
give the [individual US] states the ability to regulate marijuana just
like alcohol," said Aaron Houston, co-director of the campaign. "This is
an idea whose time has come."
Three factors are driving the
momentum. Baby boomers who smoked pot in their youth do not share
previous generations' fear of the demon weed. Economic crises have
squeezed law enforcement budgets and prompted states to seek fresh
revenue sources. And Mexico's horror show of shootings, beheadings and mayhem shows what happens when a rhetorical war turns all too real.
policy proposal long confined to radical fringes became mainstream last
year when three former Latin American presidents - César Gaviria of
Colombia, Fernando Cardoso of Brazil and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico -
urged governments to legalize marijuana to squeeze cartel profits.
Influential thinktank the Brookings Institution backed the call.
August, Argentina's supreme court ruled it was unconstitutional to
punish people for using marijuana for personal consumption, giving the
government a green light for further liberalization. "Each adult is free
to make lifestyle decisions without the intervention of the state,"
said the court. That month Mexico made it no longer an offense - but
stopped short of declaring it legal - to possess 0.5g of cocaine
(equivalent to about four lines), 5g of marijuana (about four joints),
50mg of heroin and 40mg of methamphetamine.
Maria Lucia Karam, a
Brazilian former judge turned liberalization advocate, said Calderón's
statement showed that policymakers were recognizing the failure of
prohibition. "I certainly have to be very optimistic," she said. "Ending
drug prohibition is the only way to reduce violence in Latin America
and elsewhere." Judges across the region were growing bolder in
challenging "unconstitutionalities" in current drug laws, she said.
all are convinced that Mexico's president, a conservative who has
staked his rule on the drug war, is serious about reassessing strategy.
His call for debate, made during round-table talks with security
experts, business leaders and civic groups, may have been a tactical
attempt to deflect headlines that 28,000 - a big jump on previous
official estimates - had died in the past four years.
behind legalization is that marijuana accounts for about 60% of the
$40-$60bn annual drug trade. Make it legal, goes the argument, and the
cartels will lose most of their business while states gain tax revenue
and shed the burden of jailing non-violent pot users.
would not lead to a "garden of Eden", said Walter McKay, a Canadian
former police officer who works with the Mexico City-based Institute for
Security and Democracy. Cartels would adapt and continue making profits
from cocaine, heroin, kidnapping and extortion. "But you would hurt
their revenue stream, which would mean less money to corrupt police and
politicians." However reluctantly, governments were being forced to
confront the failures of prohibition, said McKay. "We're moving forward.
In my lifetime I think we'll see prohibition dismantled or at least
A report by Edgardo Buscaglia, a law professor and UN
drug policy adviser, found that since Calderón declared war on the
cartels their power and influence had increased massively, largely
because they had been forced to become smarter and more brutal.
Buscaglia thinks legalizing drugs would be good policy but no panacea.
of prohibition say there is at least one success story: Colombia. A
decade ago it was overrun by cocaine-trafficking guerrillas and
paramilitaries. Today, after $1.3bn of mostly military US aid, the state
has recovered territory and authority and jailed top drug lords. Could
Afghanistan and Mexico follow suit?
Skeptics pray they will not. In a recent report called Don't Call it a Model
the Washington Office on Latin America thinktank said narco-trafficking
continued to flourish in Colombia, and that its security gains were
"partial, possibly reversible and weighed down by collateral damage".
America's drift away from a US-led drug war stems partly from Colombia
and Mexico's suffering and partly from growing boldness in challenging
the gringo superpower. Bolivia and Venezuela have led the way by
expelling US Drug Enforcement Administration officials. As a result, say
US diplomats, drug trafficking has surged.
But now some US
states seem to be joining the revolt, saying prohibition of marijuana
has failed just as miserably as the attempt to ban alcohol in the 1920s
and has given a similar boost to organized crime.
over California's Proposition 19 is split. Some surveys show voters
narrowly in favor; others show them against. But the mere fact of the
ballot's existence is an astonishing victory for legalization advocates.
have compared the ban on cannabis to the ban on alcohol in the 1920s,
an experiment which gifted power and fortune to Al Capone and other
mobsters. Prohibiting drugs has failed to prevent their use and social
harm and fueled narco-gang violence. "It has simply not worked," said
Houston, of the Just Say Now campaign. "We tried to ban drugs and it has
His solution is to treat cannabis like booze: legal and
taxable. Legalizing marijuana will slash cartel profits while providing
annual savings and taxes of $43bn a year to the US economy. "And
frankly, that's at the low end," Houston said.
already practically legal in many parts of the US. Using it for medical
purposes in some form is now allowed in 14 states and Washington DC.
Again, California has taken the lead. The city of Oakland is set to
license four industrial-sized marijuana farms in January that will
institute commercial-size cannabis growing alongside its already booming
The attraction for the poor city is clear:
one of the farms alone is estimated to generate $3m in tax revenue and
create 400 jobs.
The California Democratic party has stayed
neutral while numerous bodies from city governments to police groups to
politicians have mobilized against the November ballot. An influential
group of Californian police officers, the Orange County Coalition of
Police and Sheriffs, also came out against the move last week, saying
that it would hurt law and order. "[It] allows for a free-for-all at the
local level and will be another burden on law enforcement," said Joe
Perez, the group's chairman.
Resistance is even stronger outside
California. Few people are realistically looking at measures to legalize
hard drugs such as cocaine or heroin. America is still having enough
trouble getting used to the idea of accepting marijuana as part of the
legal landscape. No one thinks other drugs will follow quickly behind,
Tom Rosales, the leader of No On Prop 19, which opposes legalization, called the formation of the Just Say Now group
"tasteless". Its name, he claimed, is a taunting nod to the 1980s
anti-drug slogan associated with Nancy Reagan, Just Say No. But
supporters of Proposition 19 would say that the prohibition policy has
its own brutal, three-word epithet. Kill them all.
WHERE THE LAW HAS BEEN LIBERALIZED
In 2001, Portugal became the
first European country officially to abolish all criminal penalties for
personal possession of drugs. Those found guilty of possessing small
amounts are sent to a panel made up of a psychologist, a social worker
and a legal adviser who will advise on appropriate treatment.
laws were relaxed in 1993 to define very small amounts of drugs
(usually less than half a gram) as being for personal use. People found
with smaller amounts do not face criminal prosecution, though they are
placed on a users' register.
passing into law of Proposition 215 in November 1996 did not legalize
marijuana in California but created a new exemption from criminal
penalties for its medical use for those with a doctor's recommendation,
which can be made either in writing or verbally. This November the state
will vote on a plan, called Proposition 19, to let adults possess small
amounts of marijuana and let local government tax its sale.
Dutch classify cannabis in all its forms as a soft drug and the smoking
of it, even in public, is not prosecuted. Selling cannabis, although
technically illegal, is widely tolerated in coffee shops which, however,
must keep to a five gram maximum transaction and sell only to adults.
Recent moves have been made to tighten these controls in response to
Platzpitz park needle exchange project in the mid-1980s led to the
decision by authorities not to police the park on the grounds that it
would focus drug use in one place. The experiment ended after the number
of addicts in the park rose from a few hundred in 1987 to more than
20,000 in 1992.