Overseas/Interdiction

Reality Intrudes on the Drug War

A distinguished Latin American commission admits that prohibition has failed

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In the story of the emperor with no clothes, it took someone whose observations are rarely heeded—a child—to point out the obvious fact that no one else could acknowledge. In the case of drug policy, it takes people who are usually ignored by Washington policymakers—Latin Americans—to perform the same invaluable service.

Last week, a commission made up of 17 members, from Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa to Sonia Picado, the Costa Rican who heads the Inter-American Institute on Human Rights, did nothing but admit the truth: The war on drugs is a failure.

"Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results," the panel said in a report. "We are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs."

The panel was co-chaired by three former heads of state—Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, all of whom were once leaders in the crusade. In 1996, Zedillo won attention for escalating the crackdown. But they have learned from experience that the old strategy doesn't work.

The mere failure to stamp out drugs is not the only result. Worse still, particularly for Latin Americans, is the plague of unintended consequences. Among them, the commission noted, are the expansion of organized crime, a surge of violence related to drug trafficking, and pandemic corruption among law enforcement personnel from the street level on up.

Normally, these regrettable side effects are sufficiently distant that Americans can ignore them. But at the moment, Mexico is in the throes of a virtual civil war. Last year, some 6,000 people died in drug-related violence, and already this year, another 2,000 have perished.

Illegal workers are not the only migrants across our southern border. "U.S. authorities are reporting a spike in killings, kidnappings, and home invasions connected to Mexico's murderous cartels," the Associated Press reports. "And to some policymakers' surprise, much of the violence is happening not in towns along the border, where it was assumed the bloodshed would spread, but a considerable distance away, in places such as Phoenix and Atlanta."

The commission report highlights that we have been fighting this war for some four decades, with no end—much less victory—in sight. No one in Washington even talks in such terms anymore. As the Brookings Institution pointed out in a recent study, drug use in the United States has remained stable over the last two decades, with a million people using heroin and 3.3 million using cocaine.

"Despite some of the world's strictest drug laws, combined hardcore-user prevalence rates for hard drugs are four times higher than in Europe," it noted. If tough law enforcement at home and abroad were choking off the supply of illicit substances, prices would be soaring. In fact, the retail cost of cocaine has dropped by more than two thirds since 1990.

The U.S. government has sent a lot of money south to eradicate fields of cannabis and coca. But this amounts to plowing the sea. Where there is demand, there will be supply.

Latin America is a large place. Stamp out production in one area and it will sprout somewhere else. Drug users in this country show a stubborn indifference to whether their preferred vice comes from Colombia, Mexico, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, or Pluto, as long as it comes from somewhere. It always does.

The Latin American commission suggests using education and treatment to reduce the demand for illegal pleasure in consuming countries. But between the lines lurks a more important and radical idea, namely to treat recreational drug use (like drinking or smoking cigarettes) as a vice, not a crime.

"The enormous capacity of the narcotics trade for violence and corruption can only be effectively countered if its sources of income are substantially weakened," it argues. Unsaid is that the only way to drastically reduce the profitability of drug production and trafficking is to make them legal—as we did with liquor after Prohibition.

Most people, here or in Latin America, may not be ready for that remedy. But facing the truth about the drug war is a step toward salvation. If you want to change reality, it helps to abandon your fantasies.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  1. As obvious as the failure of prohibition is, I’m surprised that any of the politicians who took US drug war funding have admitted their mistakes.

    -jcr

  2. It’s just such a shame that there was absolutely no evidence of this when some of those clowns were actually in power. I’m sure they would have ruled differently.

  3. SugarFree,

    Interestingly, his previous wards (“Withdrawly”, “Pedopheely”, and “Peepy”) all turned out to be model citizens and real assets to the Justice League.

  4. No one with a heavily waxed goatee should be complaining about other people’s life choices.

  5. JCR, presumably the cash from up north stopped flowing once those guys were out of power. Doesn’t hurt them now to admit they were essentially pawns.

  6. The people of Venezuela have democratically chosen to make Chavez president for life! Viva la revolucion!

  7. … admited the truth about America’s four decades long drug war: Prohibition has failed.

    Well, duh!

    Drugs are still available, cheap and plentiful. If we can’t keep drugs out of the fucking prisons what makes these delusional moralists think we can keep them out of the hands of the average citizen?

    Though I must admit that using the War On Drugs Sanity has been far more successful in curtailing liberty than dope. Kinda makes ya wonder what the real target is, does it not?

  8. Every child and Peruvian novelist in the land can exclaim “The Emperor has no clothes” all day long. The royal court will keep insisting the Emperor is attired in the finest silks available. And the people will keep their eyes squeezed tight shut.

    I was holding out hope that the current economic crisis would force an end to this insanity if only for the money. But after seeing the “stimulus” bill the president is going to sign today, I now believe that congress and the president know exactly what they’re doing and are deliberately destroying the economy.

  9. I now believe that congress and the president know exactly what they’re doing and are deliberately destroying the economy.

    Wouldn’t be surprised. We’ve outlived the life-span of most of the free societies of the world already…

  10. i was so past getting angry about the WoD, then i watched Back to the Future. the delorean was such a cool/weird car, and it was destroyed by the WoD. Why did the government have to kill gullwing doors? WHY!?!?!?!??!?!?

  11. Warren, Obama is waiting to sign the “urgent” stimulus until tomorrow. Apparently some details need to be worked out that won’t be voted on in congress

  12. I wonder if the world would have been different if Vargas Llosa had become president of Peru. It nearly happened, you know.

  13. Not sure who is working out those details, since the President is celebrating the urgency of the stimulus bill by taking a vacation.

    Hey, the man’s been in office nearly a month. He needs a break.

  14. Yeah, sure! Just becuse a bunch of wops say it, it must be tru!! So now we have give all of our 6 year olds herion neddles and stick them in their arms!!! Gret thinking!!!! Why dont you all get yur bongs out and spark up, stoners!!!!!

  15. He’s not signing it today because it would probably be an affront to the unions to work on a national holiday, or some such bullshit. I find it hard to believe he’s doing it solely because he would allow 5 days public review.

  16. @ Bi-Curious George & Pablow Handlebar

    why would I want a 6 year old heroin needle?

  17. I wonder if the world would have been different if Vargas Llosa had become president of Peru. It nearly happened, you know.

    In addition to having a few libertarianish views, the guy’s a good writer. For a great movie made from one of his best satires, check out Pantaleon y Las Visitadores. Considering the plot, and a few of the scenes, it’s probably more of a “guy” movie, though.

  18. “…it’s probably more of a “guy” movie, though.”

    Yeah, but I’d probably like it, too.

  19. The 20% of people who have never done drugs should put the other 80% into prison.

    No one would do dangerous drugs anymore and prohibition could then be a success! Everyone wins!

  20. and the people in prison could still do drugs, because prohibition doesn’t work!

    WIN! WIN! WIN!

  21. Ciudadano Nada, I don’t think Vargas Llosa was even close to winning. I think they pulled the ‘incest’ card or something like that. But like you, I feel he is one of the best voices in Latin America this side of pink.

    Having good leaders in Central and South America is about as impossible as it is here in the northern parts of the New World.

  22. Oh c’mon, don’t get all excited. Latin Americans are ALWAYS criticizing what the U.S. does. Just because they happen to be right this time…

  23. “I think they pulled the ‘incest’ card or something like that.”

    Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is a great little novel/autobiography.

  24. Thanks Ciudadano Nada,

    For the tip. I will read it. Gotta get to Amazon to order it.

    Best wishes,

    Anonymous commenter currently under the handle ‘Majaz’ which incidently is a tasty rodent that is infrequently on the menu in Amazonian Peru

  25. I’m why semen was invented!

  26. Like with every other issue, Democrats in power know what the right thing to do is, but they can’t figure out how to make an argument for ending prohibition that will be as strong as the screeching from the Moral Minority will be.

    If we had any real public debate in this country they would be able to calmly explain why ending prohibition would do more good than just about any other policy proposal at the current time, and the other side would have to defend our vast prison population and the chaos in Mexico for the greater good of making sure adults don’t engage in harmless activities.

    But this country is only now getting over the paranoia and propaganda of the 80s about drugs. As a former DARE student of the year, I know how thick that stuff was laid on us.

  27. I can’t even get most of my drug-taking friends to sign on that the drug war sucks. Indeed, Tony, that is how heavy it has been laid on everyone.

  28. Like with every other issue, Democrats in power know what the right thing to do is,

    Whoa, lost me at the first curve, Tony.

  29. Drugs should definitely be legalized, but unfortunately this issue is not even on most people’s radar. It is rare that advocates of the drug war are challenged to publicly debate the moral justification for the drug war.

    To the extent that there is activism on this issue that gets noticed, it is mostly for very limited reforms such as medical marijuana or ending mandatory minimum drug sentences.

    The media and the public pay relatively little attention to arguments for legalization based on individual freedom of ingestion or the adverse side effects of the drug war. Maybe what we need is to start an organization that will focus primarily on merely getting some fucking attention for the freedom of ingestion argument.

    How would they do this? Mass letter-writing campaigns to media outlets? Public demonstrations? Open civil disobedience of drug laws (and not just on spring break)? Challenges to debate DEA officials on TV or online?

    I don’t know what combination of tactics would work best, but it seems to me that pro-legalization arguments would work better if people were put in a position where they had to actually think about them.

    Warren

    What, no calls for Reason to fire Steve Chapman?

  30. “Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results,” the panel said in a report.

    Not the results they expected maybe. Given that every attempt at prohibition in history has resulted in a violent black market, I kind of expected what happened.

    Like with every other issue, Democrats in power know what the right thing to do is

    Then why do they always do the left thing?

    Maybe what we need is to start an organization that will focus primarily on merely getting some fucking attention for the freedom of ingestion argument.

    The “freedom of ingestion” argument is a loser out of the blocks. The counter-argument is inevitably “we must protect these misguided druggies from harming themselves so they won’t infect our children.” (Not a counter I agree with, not a counter that’s valid under the Constitution, etc. But it’s effective.)

    A “the cure (WoD) is worse than the disease” campaign will work much better.

  31. The “freedom of ingestion” argument is a loser out of the blocks. The counter-argument is inevitably “we must protect these misguided druggies from harming themselves so they won’t infect our children.” (Not a counter I agree with, not a counter that’s valid under the Constitution, etc. But it’s effective.)

    I don’t agree that the freedom of ingestion is doomed to fail forever. Most people implicitly accept some version the freedom of ingestion argument when they drink alcohol, or don’t object to others drinking it responsibly.

    The distinctions people normally make regarding alcohol (risking one’s own health vs. harming others; casual, recreational use vs. organ-damaging high levels of use; adults vs. children; etc) apply illegal drugs as well. Legalization is not likely to be unthinkable for most people, once we make it clear that it is most rational to think about other drugs the same way they think about alcohol (rather than imagining drugs as mysterious evil substances with a mystical power to destroy society). Also, it is clear that drug use can’t “infect” another person the way a contagious disease does (if that isn’t clear to anyone let me know, I can elaborate in my next post).

    Maybe the reaction you mention will be a reflexive answer now, but that doesn’t mean it will always be that way. As a comparison, there was a time when legalizing consenting adult anal sex was reflexively dismissed by many people, despite the freedom argument. But this became difficult to justify when activists demanded that the prohibitionists actually give a justification for it. Today the “freedom argument” on this issue is accepted by most people.

    If you asked people “In general, are for freedom or against freedom?” most people (in this country at least) would say they are “for” freedom. In a debate over drugs, you can use that general support of freedom to establish that the burden is on the prohibition advocate to show why there are compelling reasons to make an exception in this case. If the reason is “I happen to have a distaste for those who do it”, that isn’t a good enough reason to limit freedom. If they cite more substantial reasons (ex: addicts stealing to support a habit), that opens the conversation up to other options for dealing with those problems that don’t eliminate freedom of ingestion and probably would work better. It also provides an opportunity to point out that much of the social harm attributed to drugs is the product of the drug war rather than the drugs themselves.

  32. Not only has it failed, it’s made life worse, just like alcohol prohibition did. Not just because people have to sneak around to get some relatively harmless substance they like, but because it fosters gangland war, police corruption, and loss of respect for genuine law.

    And keep calling it drug prohibition, instead of the drug war, or the war on drugs. Americans love wars, and want to “win” them. Americans don’t like being prohibited from doing stuff.

    There’s always the legal argument against drug prohibition, too: The 18th Amendment allowed the fedgov to ban alcohol sales. The 21st Amendment repealed this power. Which Amendment allows the fedgov to ban drug sales?

  33. Craig:

    It’s not an amendment, it’s the lame ass Congress Clause, which, according to Democrats (and when convenient, Republicans), allows Congress to do whatever the fuck they want.

  34. someone mentioned that the 20% who have never used illegal substances should place the other 80% in prison…”Win Win” Hmmm it would then seem that there would be even that many less people who would have to fork over their tax money to help out those poor rich bankers, (at least the ones who wouldn’t fall into the 80% category.) Bottom Line – WAR ON DRUGS has been a MASSIVE failure. People need to start opening their eyes and using their brains, let alone their common sense. LEGALIZE AND OR DECRIMINALIZE ASAP!. I guarantee you that as this economic problem we are half-heartedly dealing with starts getting as bad as it will soon be getting, the government will run with open arms to legalization/regulation for tax purposes and to also get all the thousands of people behind bars (who never should have been put there in the first place) off the GOVT dole and hopefully back in society where they belong, making more money in tax dollars for the government…..

  35. Legalization is not likely to be unthinkable for most people, once we make it clear that it is most rational to think about other drugs the same way they think about alcohol (rather than imagining drugs as mysterious evil substances with a mystical power to destroy society).

    BG, yours is a rational argument, and I agree with what you say. But supporters of the WoD are no more rational than the gun control movement and the homophobes.

    Also, it is clear that drug use can’t “infect” another person the way a contagious disease does (if that isn’t clear to anyone let me know, I can elaborate in my next post).

    Again, you are making a rational argument to people who believe that one bong hit leads inevitably to crack cocaine addiction, which leads to becoming a dealer, which leads to prowling elementary school campuses to recruit more users, until everybody dies of an overdose. All this despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    It also provides an opportunity to point out that much of the social harm attributed to drugs is the product of the drug war rather than the drugs themselves.

    I.e. “the cure is worse than the disease.” The point I was trying to make is that this argument has a much better chance of successfully raising awareness, and thus opening minds to the freedom argument.

    It’s a lot easier to rub peoples’ noses in what’s going wrong now, than to convince them legalization won’t cause as many problems in the future as they’ve been told.

  36. It’s not an amendment, it’s the lame ass Congress Clause, which, according to Democrats (and when convenient, Republicans), allows Congress to do whatever the fuck they want.

    Can you quote this Congress Clause for me?

    I am familiar with the Commerce Clause, which is interpreted very broadly as giving Congress the power to regulate things have even a very tenuous and remote relation to interstate commerce. But I am not sure what clause the “Congress Clause” is.

    LarryA

    BG, yours is a rational argument, and I agree with what you say. But supporters of the WoD are no more rational than the gun control movement and the homophobes.

    And I mentioned homophobes in my last post as an example of how it is possible to increase the percentage of people in society who look at things rationally. Would you agree that there are fewer homophobes in the US today than in 1950?

    I.e. “the cure is worse than the disease.” The point I was trying to make is that this argument has a much better chance of successfully raising awareness, and thus opening minds to the freedom argument.

    We can make both arguments, but I think it is important to dispute people’s reflexive notions of what “the disease” is that we should be worried about. Some people will agree that the current policies create a lot of problems but will want the government to change its enforcement tactics, thus trying a modified “cure” rather than leaving the “disease” of adult drug use untreated.

    We should argue that voluntary adult drug use is not per se a “disease” any more than voluntary adult drug use is per se a “disease”. If they disagree, we can challenge them to give objective reasons why, and then parse whatever reasons they give.

    It’s a lot easier to rub peoples’ noses in what’s going wrong now, than to convince them legalization won’t cause as many problems in the future as they’ve been told.

    Again, I think we need to do both. Many people currently believe the problems legalization would cause are worse than what we have now. But people’s minds could, in principle, be changed if they were presented with arguments which required them to actually think about it.

    Also, the argument won’t end with us saying “legalize drugs”. We can also talk about how we would address legitimate concerns people have related to drugs. For example, if someone says “Heroin addicts would steal to support their habit” we’ll have a reasonable response:

    – Heroin would be cheaper than it is now since there is no extra cost of evading law enforcement, so its more likely even addicts could pay for it through honest work.

    – We could provide detoxification and rehab to anyone who wants it on a voluntary basis.

    – If someone does steal to support a drug or alcohol habit; then in addition to that person’s prison sentence, he or she could be required to get rehab in prison.

    None of the stuff in that set of ideas requires limiting the freedom of ingestion of those who don’t harm others. And so it can be with other legitimate concerns related to drugs (to the extent that such concerns exist).

  37. Correction:

    We should argue that voluntary adult drug use is not per se a “disease” any more than voluntary adult drug use is per se a “disease”. If they disagree, we can challenge them to give objective reasons why, and then parse whatever reasons they give.

    This is a tautology, but that should say:

    “We should argue that voluntary adult drug use is not per se a “disease” any more than voluntary adult alcohol use is per se a “disease”. If they disagree, we can challenge them to give objective reasons why, and then parse whatever reasons they give.”

  38. It’s not just that we’re destroying South America. Afghanistan is making us choose between War on Drugs and War on Terror. Can’t have both.

  39. Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results,”

    I disagree. The results yielded are precisely what was expected. And the consequences may have been unintended, but only a fool would not have foreseen them. Now if only these fools could successfully explain the obvious to the fools currently prosecuting the drug war.

  40. The war on drugs may be a failure, but I’m not sure the alternative is better.

    There isn’t a country in the world that has successfully decriminalized drugs without suffering from a horrendous addiction problem — look at Switzerland and Holland.

    Until the mid-1970s, Singapore had among the most liberal drug policies of any nation. After seeing a horrendous addiction problem sweep through its youth, it instituted what are arguably the strictest anti-drug laws in the world.

  41. The war on drugs may be a failure, but I’m not sure the alternative is better.

    Yes it is.

    There isn’t a country in the world that has successfully decriminalized drugs without suffering from a horrendous addiction problem — look at Switzerland and Holland.

    Last time I checked, those two countries have low crime rates and a high standard of living.

    If a user is addicted to drugs but not harming anyone else, then that is not a government matter but a personal matter. Detoxification and rehabilitation are available in those countries (or if they aren’t, they can easily be made so without banning drugs). And the option of quitting without those things, while very unpleasant, is always there.

    If someone decides to remain addicted instead of any of those options; that is that person’s business.

    Until the mid-1970s, Singapore had among the most liberal drug policies of any nation. After seeing a horrendous addiction problem sweep through its youth, it instituted what are arguably the strictest anti-drug laws in the world.

    I’d rather live in a country with a bunch of addicts around, than the puritanical and hard-assed Singapore of today.

  42. Ya know…maybe the best thing is to leave the laws on the books but quit enforcing them (sort of like we do with weed now). If it is against the law it will still carry a slight stigma (yes..I know some think that makes it more attractive to kids…but show me the numbers) and it leaves open an avenue of intervention when someone’s addiction has gone over the top. FYI…the rates of alcoholism were much lower during prohibition and the rates of drug addiction go up substantially with legalization. No easy answers

  43. Debra, What state or country are you reefering to? (pardon the pun) Here in Florida possession of so much as .000001 grams of weed is a third degree felony meaning possibly a large fine with one year in jail. first offenders most likely will find themselves diverted to outpatient treatment, probation and just hefty costs, but they will most likely only spend a day in jail, get caught more than once and you will go to the graybar. Get caught with more than 20 grams and you have committed a felony and thats gonna pretty much guarantee you some graybar time…….I miss the old days when i lived in New York where getting caught with less than an ounce was a violation meaning up to a 100$ fine and court costs. Good ole Texas is another doozy. there are people who went to prison in Texas for weed possession years ago and are still there!

  44. I’m in California…you get high here just breathing the air…haha. No one here pays any attention to weed. Most everyone has or still does smoke it. Probably why Californians are considered laid back…they’re stoned…

  45. they should decriminalize it to a certain point where minor offendors should get a small fine , and above all they should STOP DESTROYING OUR LIVES AND ARRESTING US AND OUR RELATIVES OVER SOMETHING AS CASUAL AS A DRINK OR A CIGARETTE, WHICH THESE ASSHOLES PUMP INTO OUR CHILDREN FASTER THAN ANY SUBSTANCE ON THIS PLANET

  46. Drug laws will never change so long as lawyers are allowed to make the laws, because drug laws are the biggest bonanza of all for lawyers and their muscle, the police departments and their prison system.

    OF COURSE prohibition doesn’t work. We learned that back when alcohol was prohibited, but there are still millions of minions like jblog who buy into the lawyer-subsidized anti-drug propaganda, so WTF are you going to do? I can only point out what the facts are, I can’t understand them for others.

    Oh, and it figures that decades after I gave up using drugs recreationally, they would get cheap. LOL!

  47. There is no cure for the drug war except time.

    The fact is that the overwhelmingly white remnants of the World War II generation still think that all drugs encourage their nice granddaughters to have sex with Negros.

    There is no nightmare more real to them than a drug-induced Mulatto grandchild.

    These people vote and write to their congressmen much more consistently than younger and more tolerant people. And they are not Are Not ARE NOT ever going to change their minds about this.

  48. “If someone decides to remain addicted instead of any of those options; that is that person’s business.”

    That statement by itself demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the nature of addiction.

  49. “If someone decides to remain addicted instead of any of those options; that is that person’s business.”

    That statement by itself demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the nature of addiction.

    How so? What about addiction would I need to understand if I am to see the fallacy of that statement?

    My point with that statement is that being an addict doesn’t harm others per se. Using drugs doesn’t harm others per se. While you might be able to cite plenty of examples of individual addicts who acted in a way that harmed others, any physical harm they did must have been the result of other acts (or failures to act) and not merely the drug use itself. This is the main point in explaining why there should not be a law against adults using drugs; even if they do it frequently enough and in sufficient amounts to cause addiction. This is also my position on alcohol and tobacco use, and I am not dissuaded in my thinking by the fact that alcoholics and nicotine addicts exist.

    Jblog, in general, are for freedom or against freedom (or neutral)? If you say you are “for”, then I’d like you to explain in detail your reasons for making an exception in this case. Why should adults be prohibited from engaging in an act that in and of itself harms no other person?

    Is it a paternalistic reason (i.e. protect adults from harming themselves)?

    Or is it about one or more Very Bad Things? (things that involve harm to others) that you believe can only be prevented by banning drugs? And if your objections fall into this category; would you be willing to consider alternative means of combating those Very Bad Things? that don’t eliminate freedom of ingestion with respect to currently illegal substances?

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