James McBride on the shifting conventional wisdom of the War on Drugs
The past year has seen a sudden inversion of conventional wisdom regarding the never-ending war on drugs. For those who celebrated—or feared—a more tolerant approach to illicit substances, Europe used to play the role of the enlightened (or decadent) outpost of drug liberalization. Countries like Portugal and the Netherlands framed drug use as a public health issue, treating addicts as patients, not criminals. Meanwhile, the Americas approached illicit substances with a mano duro, even when it seemed liked they were just banging their hand into a brick wall.
But the spread of medical marijuana across the US, the legalization of recreational cannabis in Colorado and Washington, and the search for alternatives in Latin America have flipped the narrative on its head. The western hemisphere has emerged at the forefront of the debate, offering innovative approaches to the inevitability of our drug problem.
If the Americas are now the frontline, an unassuming solider is helping to lead the charge. In July, Uruguay’s lower house passed a law legalizing marijuana, placing it under a tightly controlled, state-directed regulatory regime. Passed by the narrowest of margins, and still awaiting final passage in the Senate, the bill is the first national law in the Americas to fully legalize the plant – although all aspects of the industry will be under government control.
Private growing is limited, it can only be sold through state-run pharmacies, and buyers will be limited to 40 grams per month.
The momentum of the drug war has shifted – albeit for contradictory reasons.
Declining violence in North American cities has created political slack on the issue and helped lead to majority support for pot legalization. By contrast, in Latin America the intractable brutality of the trafficking industry has pushed politicians toward a discussion of alternatives to the militarized, supply-side approach.
In the US, mainstream acceptance of marijuana’s medical benefits has been central to convincing Americans that the plant’s dangers have been wildly overblown. Only days ago, CNN’s pillar of medical conventional wisdom himself, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, penned a remarkable mea culpa, apologizing for helping to “terribly and systematically mislead” the American people regarding the threat of cannabis.
But the safety of cannabis aside, Latin American leaders are considering alternatives because they are obsessed with stopping the violence that has metastasized around the trafficking industry. In Mexico, the ramped up military assault on the cartels has left 60,000 dead with little to show for it but overflowing jails and weakened local institutions.
There isn’t one “drug problem” – there are many.
First, there is the enforcement approach – which policy can reduce or eliminate the overall ability to buy or sell drugs? Then, there is the public health approach – which policy best reduces the harm associated with particular drugs while maximizing their medical benefits? Finally, there is the pressing need to reduce the violence and widespread corruption associated with the black market.
These issues are so controversial because, unfortunately, a policy that mitigates one problem may well inflame another.
For instance, legalization may in fact reduce the violence associated with trafficking. But by reducing prices and expanding availability, it will almost surely increase drug use, and, thus, the potential for abuse and addiction. On the other hand, prohibition may suppress drug use somewhat, but by artificially propping up prices it subsidizes the very criminal organizations we seek to destroy – and by treating drug abuse as a crime it likely makes the problems of addiction and social isolation even worse.
As the most recent OAS drug policy document puts it, “any set of drug policies reflects tradeoffs among competing evils.”
But exasperation with the status quo has made strange bedfellows.
Conservative leaders like Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina have joined with former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ricardo Lagos of Chile, and Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox of Mexico to push for alternatives to the current policy. Latin American leaders used the 2012 Summit of the Americas to launch a debate on the subject, and while President Obama ruled out legalization, he did signal a willingness to discuss intermediate steps such as partial decriminalization.
The most immediate result of the 2012 Summit was the aforementioned major OAS report “The Drug Problem in the Americas,” which envisions a number of alternative scenarios, ranging from greater decriminalization to more policies to reduce demand for drugs.
One of the paper’s key findings is that drug trafficking violence has a symbiotic relationship with weak states, as widespread criminality overwhelms police, prisons, and justice systems, creating a downward spiral of impunity. Thus, a key goal of decriminalization is to to avoid swamping already weak institutions with the pursuit of low-level users and dealers.
In addition, the OAS report suggests that the legalization of marijuana could hit the cartels where it hurts – in the wallet. Estimates differ wildly, but marijuana accounts for anywhere from 25 to 60 percent of cartel revenue, given that North America comprises close to half of the US$141 billion world cannabis market. The Mexican Competitiveness Institute predicts that legalizations in Colorado and Washington will cost the Sinaloa cartel alone nearly US$3 billion.
Yet the Latin American public remains skeptical
Ironically, it appears that those who have been the hardest hit by trafficking are the most hesitant to support legalization efforts. In Mexico, only one third of respondents would consider cannabis legalization, and a proposal for decriminalization in Mexico City has drawn fire from Left and Right. In Chile and Argentina, 30 percent support legalization, and in Colombia that number is a mere 13 percent. The worse the violence, it seems, the greater the appeal of a tough-on-crime approach.
Which bring us back to Uruguay.
The small country, wedged between Brazil and Argentina, may be more of an outlier in the region than it appears. One of the most stable, most equal, and least corrupt of Latin American countries, Uruguay’s experiment with legalization has little to do with reducing violence or cartel influence. Rather, like in the US and Europe, the rationale is public health – with a focus on investing new revenue into health, education, and prevention and treatment programs.
The drug debate remains a heated one, featuring divergent agendas and plenty of high passions. But there is no question that the countries of the Americas are trending towards alternative approaches to their tenacious drug problems. The rest of the world should be watching intently. Much hangs on these experiments.
James McBride is an Associate at Blue Star Strategies, an international consulting firm that advises corporations, governments, and institutions on government affairs and investment strategies.
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