Reality Intrudes on the Drug War

A distinguished Latin American commission admits that prohibition has failed


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.