Drug Policy

Latin American Ex-Presidents Imagine a Kinder, Gentler Prohibition

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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.]