Price of Prohibition

Drug policy and Latin America


American officials cite the appalling levels of violence in Mexico, caused by an escalation of the war on drugs, as an argument for escalating the war on drugs. "If the drug effort were failing," an unnamed "senior U.S. official" told The Wall Street Journal in February, "there would be no violence." That same month, three former Latin American presidents suggested a different direction. The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, convened by Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, issued a statement declaring the current approach to drug policy a failure and calling for a "paradigm shift.

"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 ex-presidents say. "We are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs." Meanwhile, they note, the war on drugs has been accompanied by "a rise in organized crime," "a growth in unacceptable levels of drug-related violence," "the criminalization of politics and the politicization of crime," and "the corruption of public servants."

Declaring that "current drug repression policies are firmly rooted in prejudices, fears and ideological visions," Cardoso et al. recommend a "public health" approach that would treat addicts as patients instead of criminals, use treatment and education to curtail drug use, and focus law enforcement efforts on battling organized crime. "A broad debate about alternative strategies," they say, should include "decriminalizing the possession of cannabis for personal use," since "most of the damage associated with cannabis use—from the indiscriminate arrest and incarceration of consumers to the violence and corruption that affect all of society —is the result of the current prohibitionist policies."