Latin American Ex-Presidents Imagine a Kinder, Gentler Prohibition

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, three former presidents of Latin American countries—Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico—declare that "the war on drugs has failed" and call for replacing it with "more humane and efficient drug policies" based on "public health." I'm with them on that first part, but I have some doubts about the alternative they propose.

Cardoso et al. correctly note that "prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption simply haven't worked," whether in terms of curtailing production, consumption, or violence. They are understandably outraged by the mayhem and corruption that the U.S. government has fostered by attempting to prevent Americans from getting the drugs they want:

In Mexico...narcotics-related violence has claimed more than 5,000 lives in the past year alone.

The revision of U.S.-inspired drug policies is urgent in light of the rising levels of violence and corruption associated with narcotics. The alarming power of the drug cartels is leading to a criminalization of politics and a politicization of crime. And the corruption of the judicial and political system is undermining the foundations of democracy in several Latin American countries.

The three ex-presidents acknowledge that "antinarcotic policies are firmly rooted in prejudices and fears that sometimes bear little relation to reality" and say "it is essential to differentiate among illicit substances according to the harm they inflict on people's health, and the harm drugs cause to the social fabric." Such an analysis, they suggest, might lead to "decriminalizing the possession of cannabis for personal use." They say "the available empirical evidence shows that the hazards caused by cannabis are similar to the harm caused by alcohol or tobacco."

That gloss actually overstates the hazards associated with marijuana. The health consequences of heavy drinking or a pack-a-day cigarette habit are far more serious than the health consequences of smoking pot, even on a regular basis, and the harm inflicted on others by potheads pales beside the harm inflicted on others by alcohol abusers. Hence Cardoso et al. underestimate the arbitrariness of the drug laws. More important, they overlook the existence of drug users who are not addicts, thereby ignoring the vast majority of people who consume illegal intoxicants, and they advocate a "public health" approach to drug policy that could easily lead to forcible re-education disguised as therapy.

Cardoso et al. call for "changing the status of addicts from drug buyers in the illegal market to patients cared for by the public-health system." If this change means replacing jail with "treatment," it may be preferable from the perspective of individual drug users. But what about the users, addicted or not, who do not want treatment? Cigarette smokers and alcoholics who do not seek help in quitting generally do not have it forced upon them. But illegal drug users routinely do.

Cardoso et al. say "the long-term solution is to reduce demand for drugs in the main consumer countries" through "educational campaigns." But if people continue using illegal drugs despite these campaigns (as seems likely), the black market will persist, making the second prong of Cardoso et al.'s strategy, focusing law enforcement resources on "the fight against organized crime," problematic, to say the least. Police can (and repeatedly have) put particular drug dealers out of business, but new ones will always take their place as long as there is a demand for the products they sell. Cardoso et. all should be commended for having the courage to tell the truth about the damage caused by the war on drugs and for advocating a less coercive approach. But unless the U.S. government decides to tolerate politically incorrect choices of intoxicants (a step that Cardoso et al. only halfheartedly advocate for only one currently illegal drug), Latin America will continue to suffer for the impossible dream of a drug-free society. 

A couple of weeks ago Radley Balko noted the report by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy that was the basis for the ex-presidents' Wall Street Journal piece. In the March 1998 issue of Reason, we explored the pros and cons of "medicalizing" drug policy.

[Thanks to John Kluge for the tip.]

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  • Jerry||

  • ||

    The problem with the article is that they equate casual use with addicts. They think you can deal with the demand issue by making addiction a health issue and just proscribing the addicts drugs. That assumes that the demand is being driven by addicts rather than casual use. I don't think that is true. Most drug users are not addicts and most demand is recreational use by non-addicts. You could give all of the junkies all the drugs they want and you still would have a black market.

  • Seward||

    Recently I heard a comment that compared ending the WoD with abolitionism and I think that is the right frame of mind frankly. That doesn't mean we should stop banging the gong as loudly as possible though.

  • ||

    The problem with the article is that they equate casual use with addicts.

    As if there is a difference. It may make sense to send first time offenders to drug court to get sent to treatment first, and prison if they fail.

  • ||

    wow, Juanita has crawled out from under her rock. I guess Monday is as good as any for performance art.

  • ||

    Such an analysis, they suggest, might lead to "decriminalizing the possession of cannabis for personal use."

    This certainly implies that they will leave the black market in pot, well, black, meaning that this proposal will do absolutely nothing to cut back on organized crime and corruption, and precious little to reduce the damage to our civil society.

    The drug cartels will still handle all the commercial pot traffic, the DEA and the local drug cowboys will still be in business. Drug/black market related crime will be unaffected, as will incentives for law enforcement.

    I see the outcome of this approach as being revocation of limited decriminalization, delegitimizing of any arguments for ending the drug war, and the expansion and entrenchment of the drug war.

  • BDB||

    Remember when Mexico tried to decriminalize posession, but then relented because we twisted their arms really hard?

    Yeah. Latin America isn't doing anything on drug policy w/out our explicit approval.

  • BDB||

    Unless they're anti-American. Then they wouldn't care. But I don't see Castro or Chavez being anti-drug war.

  • ||

    If you decriminalized all pot making it legal to posses sell to anyone over 18 and grow, you would immediately take millions out of the hands of the drug lords. Also, I think you might have the effect of reducing demand for other drugs. As it stands you are risking your life and future to use pot so there really isn't much of a marginal cost of moving up to coke or anything else. Perhaps if you made pot and say anphetimines and pain pills legal people would do those drugs and forgoe more harmful drugs like meth and coke and put the drug gangs totally out of business. Seriously, who is going to buy meth from some scumbag when you can buy greenies at the local CVS?

  • BDB||

    You're right, no one is going to be buying coke much less meth if Ritalin and Adderall were OTC, and the same for Heroin if Oxy was OTC. Why shoot up with some stuff off the street that could be mixed with God knows what when you could get a pill from a corporation?

  • BDB||

    Ex., the market for bath tub gin pretty much dried up after prohibition ended. The same would happen to crack cocaine.

  • ||

    Seriously, who is going to buy meth from some scumbag when you can buy greenies at the local CVS?

    Uh, people who would rather use meth? Seriously, everyone can get pot pretty easily if they want it, it is not prosecuted as hard and some cops even just take it and let you off with a warning for having it (unless you're black in which case Juanita told you so). So, with all that known to drug users now, people still choose to do other drugs. Different strokes, John. Different strokes.

  • ||

    Why shoot up with some stuff off the street that could be mixed with God knows what when you could get a pill from a corporation?

    This is my daily philosophy.

  • BDB||

    The better statement would be "nobody is going to do meth when they can get Adderall OTC in an nicely controlled dose that won't be cut with shit".

  • ||

    Please excuse the lengthy cut and paste.

    The US has a population of approximately 305,522,804 people, meaning that approximately 1 out of every 34,972 US residents fatally overdose on drugs that could have possibly originated in or passed through Mexico.

    Mexico has a population of approximately 108,700,891 people. In 2008, 5,612 people, or 1 out of every 19,369 Mexicans, died in the drug war, meaning that the drug war is almost twice as deadly for Mexicans as illicit drugs are for US residents. Does this mean that a US resident's life is nearly twice as valuable as that of a Mexican?

    The death toll only continues to rise in Mexico. In addition to more than doubling 2007's death toll and breaking an all-time execution record in Mexico, the drug war death toll has steadily-and rapidly-increased in 2008. During the last two months of 2008, drug executions reached a rate of one per hour.



    The whole piece is worth a read.

  • ||

    "Uh, people who would rather use meth? Seriously, everyone can get pot pretty easily if they want it, it is not prosecuted as hard and some cops even just take it and let you off with a warning for having it (unless you're black in which case Juanita told you so). So, with all that known to drug users now, people still choose to do other drugs. Different strokes, John. Different strokes."

    I think the people who would rather use meth when speed is legally available are just degenerates. Yeah, they are some of them out there, but I would think their numbers would be low in comparison to know. There are people who still like moonshine made in some disgusting moutain still instead of good wiskey. The dregs will always be dregs I guess.

  • ||

    "Does this mean that a US resident's life is nearly twice as valuable as that of a Mexican?"

    Well yeah. Of course it is. But that doesn't mean that drugs shouldn't be legalized.

  • </||

    BDB,

    While you are probably right about the substitution of oxycodone for heroin there is no comparing decent cocaine and ritalin or adderall.
    I don't like cocaine or speed but cocaine is way better.Really pure cocaine is way, way better than any speed.'script speed was easily available until they created the schedule thing under Nixon and yet cocaine was expensive and in high demand.

  • ||

    Does this mean that a US resident's life is nearly twice as valuable as that of a Mexican?

    Only twice? WTF? Are we Americans or are we goddamned Canadians?!

  • BDB||

    I wouldn't know, #. But Adderall and Ritalin basically got me through college.

    According to the ODCP I should be a penniless loser addict by now.

  • ||

    For Juanita -

    I'm the burning bush, I'm the burning fire
    I'm the bleeding volcano
    I'm so hot for her, I'm so hot for her
    I'm so hot for her and she's so cold

    Yeah, I tried re-wiring her, tried re-firing her
    I think her engine is permanently stalled
    She's so cold she's so cold
    She's so cold cold cold
    Like a tombstone
    She's so cold, she's so cold
    she's so cold cold cold like an ice cream cone
    She's so cold she's so cold
    And when I touch her my hand just froze



    © M. Jagger/K. Richards

  • BDB||

    I never did non-pharms (except for pot) because I want to know a)what does I'm taking and b)know that's the only thing I'm taking.

  • ||

    "I wouldn't know, #. But Adderall and Ritalin basically got me through college."

    As I post on three different threads and work on a legal memo, I can tell you I have the attention span of a knat. I would give anything to get my hands on some Ritalin. I would imagine it would greatly increase my productivity.

  • ||

    The health consequences of heavy drinking or a pack-a-day cigarette habit are far more serious than the health consequences of smoking pot, even on a regular basis, and the harm inflicted on others by potheads pales beside the harm inflicted on others by alcohol abusers.

    The health and social consequences of all drugs pale when compared to alcohol. It's a great example to keep in mind. Alcohol provides undeniable proof that every single pro-prohibition argument is wrong. Until they start insisting Alcohol prohibition was a great success. Then you have to carefully explain that reducing the total amount of fun people have is not a worthy goal.

  • ||

    Could it be argued that legalized heroine and coke sold in govt approved stores would be less likely to have the harmful cutting agents in them, so overdoses would be severely reduced? There could still be a black market for drugs but I doubt it would be all that lucrative. Sounds like no one really wants those harmful chemicals in their drugs.

  • Why do meth when...||

    You can get desoxyn over the counter!

  • ||

    I don't drink nearly as much as I used to. It just makes me sick and fat. An occasional drink is nice but ultimately if you don't get at least moderatly soused what is the point? Alcohol is really kind of vile in many ways. It can make you deathly ill and gives you a terrible hangover. I have limited experience with illegal drugs, but as a general rule I found pot to have much fewer side effects than alcohol. Setting aside harder drugs for a moment, there really isn't one rational arguement for allowing alcohol but not allowing pot.

  • OO===D||

    "As if there is a difference. It may make sense to send first time offenders to drug court to get sent to treatment first, and prison if they fail."

    I'm addicted to YOU, Juanita! I want to be held in your prison for life with no hope of parole!

  • ||

    "Sounds like no one really wants those harmful chemicals in their drugs."

    Junkies are a fucked up lot. The guy they made the movie "American Gangster" about got rich marketing his herione. He would put out one batch of bad heroine that wasn't cut enough that killed a couple of people and then sell the cut down stuff under the same brand to the junkies. The junkies no shit wanted the stuff more because they thought it was killing people. That is just fucked up.

  • ||

    My point is that even if you legalized drugs, there would still be dumb asses out there buying crazy shit on the theory that "the government won't let you have the good stuff". Those would be small numbers but they would be there.

  • BDB||

    It seems to me meth is the only drug where the govt. propaganda is probably close to reality.

  • Ernest T. Bass||

    "There are people who still like moonshine made in some disgusting moutain still instead of good wiskey."

    Clearly you don't know a pig's shit about moonshine.

  • ||

    My point is that even if you legalized drugs, there would still be dumb asses out there buying crazy shit on the theory that "the government won't let you have the good stuff". Those would be small numbers but they would be there.

    There is still a market for moonshine. A small one to be sure, but it's there. I've had it. My stepfather was a hillbilly, and would bring it back to civilized environs after visiting Tennessee.

  • ||

    I have had it to J sub D. It is nasty shit if you ask me. None of the flavors or interesting things about bourbon or wiskey with all the burn.

  • The Angry Optimist||

    Clearly you don't know a pig's shit about moonshine.

    Sounds like he does. Like absinthe, moonshine is an alcoholic beverage whose inflated mythology far surpasses its (barely existent) redeemable qualities.

  • cuernimus||

    And that some people would make it out of fruits or grains with high amounts of pectin (turns into methanol) and make people go blind adds to moonshine's appeal, though I doubt they understand the chemistry behind it.

  • ||

    AO,

    When I went to Prague, I went into a bar and tried absinth. My god what a vile drink. And for the record, it doesn't make you hallucinate. It just makes you want to vomit.

  • SpongePaul||

    CA just introduced a bill to tax and regulate Can. Sat.

  • BDB||

    "SpongePaul | February 23, 2009, 2:44pm | #
    CA just introduced a bill to tax and regulate Can. Sat."

    Really? Like alcohol?

    Lemme guess--the guy who did this is from San Francisco? It has no chance of passing anyway, Ahnold would veto it for the children.

  • Another Phil||

    As I post on three different threads and work on a legal memo, I can tell you I have the attention span of a knat. I would give anything to get my hands on some Ritalin. I would imagine it would greatly increase my productivity.

    It's easy to get if you really want it. Make an appointment with a psychopharmacologist or psychiatrist and describe your ADD-like symptoms. My professional (and current academic) life became much easier for me once I started taking extended-release dexedrine.

  • SpongePaul||

    Speaking at a landmark press conference today, California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) introduced comprehensive legislation to tax and regulate the commercial production and sale of cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol.

    "With the state in the midst of an historic economic crisis, the move towards regulating and taxing marijuana is simply common sense. This legislation would generate much needed revenue for the state, restrict access to only those over 21, end the environmental damage to our public lands from illicit crops, and improve public safety by redirecting law enforcement efforts to more serious crimes", Assemblyman Ammiano said. "California has the opportunity to be the first state in the nation to enact a smart, responsible public policy for the control and regulation of marijuana."

    The proposal is the first marijuana legalization bill ever introduced in California.


    "It's time for California taxpayers to stop wasting money trying to enforce marijuana prohibition, and to realize the tax benefits from a legal, regulated market instead," said Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, a sponsor of the bill.

    As introduced, Ammiano's measure would allow for the licensed production and sale of cannabis to consumers age 21 and over. Licensed cultivators would pay an excise tax of $50 per ounce of cannabis. In addition, the proposal would impose a sales tax on commercial sales. (Ammiano's proposal would not affect the state's medical marijuana law, allowing patients and caregivers to grow their own medicine.)

    If enacted, the measure would raise over $1 billion per year in state revenue, according to an economic analysis by California NORML, available online here.

    Ammiano's bill comes at a time of growing public support for legalizing marijuana. A recent Zogby poll reported that nearly six in ten west coast voters support taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol.

    Faced with a $40 billion budget deficit, other public officials have joined in endorsing Ammiano's bill, including San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessy and Betty Yee, a member of the State Board of Equalization, which oversees collection of sales taxes.

    Currently, tens of millions of dollars are paid annually in state and local taxes by licensed distributors of medical marijuana. However, these sales only represent a fraction of the overall statewide marijuana market. "The millions of dollars raised each year on the sales of medicinal cannabis is only the tip of the iceberg," Gieringer said. "Kudos to Assemblyman Ammiano for proposing a path-breaking bill that would benefit our economy, safety and freedom by making marijuana a winning proposition for California."

  • wayne||

    According to the ODCP I should be a penniless loser addict by now.



    uh.... you are posting at reason.... maybe those uppers did more damage than you know.

  • ||

    God, I wish something like the Ammiano bill would pass, just so we could have a full-on armed confrontation between state and federal cops.

    Or at least some serious examination of the relative roles of the state and federal government when they are in complete conflict on an issue. Even if the result was, as I suspect, that California's law would get thrown out, it might get some people thinking.

  • wayne||

    As introduced, Ammiano's measure would allow for the licensed production and sale of cannabis to consumers age 21 and over. Licensed cultivators would pay an excise tax of $50 per ounce of cannabis. In addition, the proposal would impose a sales tax on commercial sales. (Ammiano's proposal would not affect the state's medical marijuana law, allowing patients and caregivers to grow their own medicine.)



    As much as I like the philosophy behind this proposed bill, it will not eradicate the corrosive effects of prohibition. As long as somebody can make $1600 per pound by avoiding taxes, there will still be a black market.

  • BakedPenguin||

    wayne - to some extent. One thing it would do it make growing for personal use legal. One of the stupidest things about our current drugs laws is that it's better to buy drugs (and support terrarists!) than to grow your own. Growing your own automatically makes you a "manufacturer" according to the laws of nearly every state.

    Also, by legalizing it, the price would drop tremendously. Even with a $50 / oz. tax, I imagine you could find ounces for $75 - or less - once it's legal.

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