Feature

Latin America: Calling a truce in the war on drugs

The Commission on Drugs and Democracy in Latin America has released a report urging the region's countries to decriminalize drugs and to treat drug addicts as patients.

The war on drugs has failed, said former Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso in the London Observer. Despite “decades of overflights, interdictions, spraying, and raids on jungle drug factories,” Latin America remains the world’s largest exporter of cocaine and marijuana. The Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which I co-chaired along with two other former Latin American presidents, has released a report urging the region’s countries to change their methods. Addicts should be treated not as criminals but as “patients cared for in the public-health system,” and possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use should be decriminalized altogether. We don’t mean to imply that drug use is a good thing. Decriminalization must be coupled with “robust prevention campaigns” to discourage drug abuse. But it’s clear that we must end “a misguided and counterproductive war that makes the users, rather than the drug lords, the primary victims.”

Argentina, at least, is “completely overhauling” its drug policies, said La Nación in an editorial. The Supreme Court ruled recently that it was unconstitutional to jail someone for possession of pot for personal use, and the government has drawn up a new plan to refocus its efforts on the drugs that cause the most harm to society: alcohol and crack cocaine. The new drug policy will prioritize the “prevention, diagnosis, and treatment” of alcoholism and crack addiction as health-care issues.

Mexico last month went even further, said Luis Noe Ochoa in Colombia’s El Tiempo, decriminalizing possession not only of pot but also of small amounts of LSD, cocaine, and heroin. These reforms “shift the entire focus of the drug war to sellers,” where it should be. Prohibition has never worked. In fact, studies show that when you decriminalize drug use, consumption actually drops, partly because addicts feel freer to get help. “Mexico should be an example for all of us.”

Actually, there is less to Mexico’s reforms than it appears, said Sergio Sarmiento in Mexico’s El Norte. Possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use has been legal here since 1978. What the new law does is quantify the amount of drugs that counts as personal—and it specified such “tiny quantities that just about anyone holding any of these substances will be treated as a drug trafficker.” Under the new rules, if you are in possession of more than five joints or more than half a gram of coke, you’re considered a dealer. That’s absurd. Is someone with six cigarettes in her purse a tobacco dealer? The law stipulates tough prison sentences for these so-called dealers. That’s hardly “a rethink of the war on drugs.”

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