Latin American Leaders Say 'No' to U.S. Drug War

WASHINGTON - A commission led by
three former Latin American heads of state has called the 30-year U.S.
"war on drugs" in Latin America a failure and urged a drastic change in

The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy
issued a report Wednesday, "Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm
Shift," which calls for the creation of a Latin American drug policy
and proposes three specific actions under the new paradigm: treat
addicts as patients in the public health system; evaluate
decriminalisation of cannabis possession for personal use; and reduce
consumption through public education campaigns primarily directed at

"The available evidence indicates that the war on drugs is a
failed war," former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso said
in a conference call with reporters from Rio de Janeiro. "We have to
move from their approach to another one."

The commission headed by Cardoso and former presidents Ernesto
Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia calls on U.S. and Latin
American governments to acknowledge the insufficiencies of current
policy and to engage in a debate about new alternatives.

"They're (the Commission) saying enough is enough," said John
Walsh, senior associate for the Andes and Drug Policy at the Washington
Office on Latin America. "There's a real drug war weariness in Latin
America and its bad enough to feel like a policy had been imposed, and
its worse when the policy doesn't work."

According to the report, Latin America remains the major global exporter of cocaine and
cannabis, has become a growing producer of opium and heroin, and is developing the capacity to produce synthetic drugs.

"I think that it is absolutely crucial to have a rethinking of the drug
policy," said Mike Shifter, vice president for policy and director of
the Andean programme at the Inter-American Dialogue. "There's no policy
that has been invested in more that's produced so little."

The report calls for a review of U.S. prohibitionist strategy,
which it says has deficiencies, and a look at the benefits and
drawbacks of the harm reduction strategy followed by the European Union

The levels of drug consumption continue to grow in Latin
America while there is a tendency toward stabilisation in North America
and Europe, according to the report.

The report cites Columbia and Mexico as nations where U.S.
prohibitionist policies, despite the large investment of resources and
loss of innocent lives, have failed to put an end to drug trafficking
and narco-violence. It cautions other countries from adopting these
kinds of policies and urges them to search for innovative alternatives.

The long-term solution for the drug problem is to drastically reduce
the demand for drugs in the main consumer countries, the report states.
As U.S. and European domestic markets are the main consumers of the
drugs produced in Latin America, the report calls on the U.S. and EU to
share the responsibility faced by Latin American countries to design
and implement policies leading to an effective reduction in their
levels of drug consumption.

The commission proposes that Latin American countries adopt several initiatives aimed at reforming drug war policies.

One such proposition is to change the status of addicts from drug
buyers in the illegal market to patients cared for in the public health
system. This will weaken the foundation of the drug business by
reducing the demand for illegal drugs and lowering their price.

The report calls the convenience of decriminalising the
possession of cannabis for personal use to be evaluated from a public
health standpoint and on the basis of the most advanced medical

According to the report, available empirical evidence shows that the
harm caused by cannabis is similar to the harm caused by alcohol or
tobacco. It cites that most of the damage associated with cannabis use
- including arrest and incarceration of consumers and the violence and
corruption that affect all of society - is the result of the current
prohibitionist policies.

The report calls the U.S. policy of massive incarceration of
drug users questionable, both in terms of respect for human rights and
its efficiency. That policy is not applicable to Latin America, given
the penal system's overpopulation and material conditions.

Rather, public policy should be targeted to fighting the most harmful
effects of organised crime on society, such as violence, institutional
corruption, money laundering, arms trafficking, and the control over
territories and populations, the report states.

The commission urges Latin America to establish a dialogue
with the U.S. government, legislators and civil society to jointly
develop workable alternatives to the current war on drugs strategy. It
sees the new administration of U.S. President Barack Obama as a unique
opportunity to reshape a failed strategy and engage in the common
search for more efficient and humane policies.

Analysts say the report opens up a debate which is badly
needed, though it remains to be seen if it will have any effect on U.S.

"There has been no signal at all from the Obama administration
that I've seen that they're really prepared to take serious review of
this policy," said Shifter. "I think if Obama has a chance to focus on
this he will be very sympathetic," he added.

"I think because of Mexico and the large investment the U.S.
has in Columbia, the administration knows that finding a better way to
deal with drug problems has to occur," said Walsh. "That doesn't make
it a top priority in the coming months."

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