Latin America Wants Drug Peace; Washington Demands More War

The Drug War is over. The U.S. government hasn't stopped arresting people for using pot and other illicit substances. But no one seriously believes Washington is going to "win," whatever that means. The Drug War is on autopilot, with American politicians afraid to admit the obvious.

However, foreign leaders are beginning to break ranks with Washington, despite the combination of bribes and threats which it has used to keep other governments in line. For instance, last month Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who has vigorously prosecuted the violent drug war that is tearing his nation apart, asked Washington to consider "market solutions" to cut drug gang revenues.

In early July Mexican president-elect Enrique Pena Nieto announced that while he wasn't for legalization, he wanted to start a discussion on drug policy. Explained Pena Nieto:

I'm in favor of opening a new debate in the strategy in the way we fight drug trafficking. It is quite clear that after several years of this fight against drug trafficking, we have more drug consumption, drug use and drug trafficking. That means we are not moving in the right direction. Things are not working.

Mexico has paid a high price for failure. As many as 60,000 people have died over the last six years in rising drug-related violence. Yet illicit drugs are getting cheaper, and thus more available, in the U.S. Explained Eduardo Porter in the New York Times, Mexican cartels bring in 95 percent of the cocaine sold on America's streets, yet the retail price of one gram "is 74 percent cheaper than it was 30 years ago."

Unfortunately, while Pena Nieto recognized that militarized drug prohibition has failed, he said he's not talking about reducing enforcement activities -- or returning to the Mexican government's traditional corrupt truce with drug smugglers. Rather,

We will adjust the strategy so that we can focus on certain type of crimes, like kidnapping, homicide, extortion, which today, unfortunately, have worsened or increased, because we have a lot of impunity in some areas. The state's task is to achieve more efficiency.

Toward that end, he proposed increased cooperation with Washington, just no joint armed operations.

Alas, greater efficiency is a fantasy. In the U.S. the federal, state, and local governments have spent decades futilely attempting to adjust, reform, fine tune, and otherwise improve drug enforcement policies. Pena Nieto said, "We should set measurable objectives over a determined period of time," but by almost every "measurable objective" the drug war in America has failed. Tens of millions of people have used drugs while millions of people have been imprisoned for using them. Corruption undermines the police and criminal justice systems, while igniting violent crime across the nation. All three branches of government have curtailed American liberties, creating essentially a "drug exception" to the Bill of Rights. All for naught.

There is good news, however. Opposition to drug prohibition is spreading around the world.

European governments long have proved willing to ignore U.S. pressure and go their own way. Britain, Netherlands, and Switzerland have experimented with various forms of legalization. Portugal most recently decriminalized all drug use. In a detailed study for the Cato Institute, Glenn Greenwald concluded that, "None of the parade of horrors that decriminalization opponents in Portugal predicted, and that decriminalization opponents around the world typically invoke, has come to pass."

However, the newest front in the war on the war on drugs is in Latin America.

Vicente Fox, the first candidate of the more conservative, opposition National Action Party to win Mexico's presidency, proposed decriminalizing personal use of cocaine, heroin, and pot. Virulent U.S. opposition -- for American policymakers, everything is always about them -- helped kill the measure. He argued earlier this year: "Prohibitions don't work, and the last remaining frontier of prohibition is drug, and we should question ourselves why drugs." He now advocates "legalization all the way -- all drugs and in all places."

In 2009 Mexico decriminalized personal possession of cocaine, heroine, LSD and pot. The same year Argentina's Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to punish people for personal use of marijuana. A Brazilian appellate court also ruled that possession for personal use was not illegal.

The same year the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy denounced current policy as an expensive and deadly failure. Members Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, and Ernesto Zedillo, former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, respectively, took the public lead, advocated decriminalizing drug use. More recently Presidents Laura Chinchilla and Mauricio Funes of Costa Rica and El Salvador, respectively, urged reform of strict drug laws and discussion of legalization as an alternative, though Funes believes that the latter would "create a moral problem."

Earlier this year Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, an anti-communist general who campaigned against crime, said the drug war had failed and that "consumption and production should be legalized." He added: "We're bringing the issue up for debate." He pushed the idea at a meeting of Central American leaders and at the April Summit of the Americas, attended by President Barack Obama.

In June Uruguay's President Jose Mujica proposed legislation to legalize marijuana. The government would sell marijuana to citizens, with revenues used for drug treatment and rehabilitation. Roughly five percent of the population, about 150,000, is thought to smoke dope regularly. President Mujica explained: "We are doing this for the young people, because the traditional approach hasn't worked."

Defense minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro announced the plan. He argued that the violence caused by prohibition is causing "more problems than the drugs themselves" and that financial "corruption is affecting Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala, on a greater scale, and now it is coming to Ecuador and Brazil. We don't want our country to follow this route." The legislation also calls on other nations to consider pot legalization.

In early July the Colombian government won approval from the Constitutional Court for a proposal, previously passed by the Chamber of Representatives, to decriminalize personal use of cocaine and marijuana. Anyone possessing less than 20 grams of pot or one gram of cocaine would be offered treatment. President Juan Manuel Santos argued that "One extreme can be to put all users in prison" while the other would be legalization; he sought to find "more practical policies" in between. Nevertheless, his objective was eliminating "the violent profit" of the drug trade and "If that means legalizing and the world thinks that's the solution, I would welcome it." Former president Gaviria Trujillo said, "We cannot be condemned to live in war because Americans do not want to talk about it. No one speaks in favor of the war on drugs."

There long have been leading commentators and economists -- William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman, for instance -- who have challenged the conventional wisdom in favor of drug prohibition. Now heads of state and government are pushing for a serious rethink. Noted Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance: "There's the beginning of change here. I don't think it's going to be possible to put this genie back in the bottle."

These moves have embarrassed the Obama administration, which has been increasing direct U.S. involvement in other nations' anti-drug campaigns. In June an American Drug Enforcement Administration agent killed a Honduran citizen during a drug raid. The DEA agents also provided the helicopters used on the raid, which included Honduran police. Observed Charlie Savage of the New York Times:

The shooting brought further attention to the growing American involvement in counternarcotics operations in Central America. Commando-style squads of D.E.A. agents have been working with local security forces in several countries and have been present at several firefights in Honduras in which people have died in the last 15 months.

During a March trip to Central America, Vice President Joseph Biden rejected legalization but said the question was "worth discussing." At the Summit of the Americas, President Obama criticized legalization, but indicated his willingness to consider whether Washington's policies were "doing more harm than good in certain places." He added:

Given the pressures a lot of governments are under -- under resourced, overwhelmed by violence -- it's completely understandable that they would look for new approaches, and we want to cooperate with them.

However, if those new approaches lessen or abandon enforcement, Washington would have to change direction in order to "cooperate."

Indeed, the president has been a great disappointment to many of his original supporters because the administration has pursued the Drug War as vigorously as did President George W. Bush. President Obama has not even relaxed the federal attack on states which have legalized the medical use of marijuana.

Marc Ambinder of GQ recently predicted that in a second term the president "plans to tackle another American war that has so far been successful only in perpetuating more misery: the four decades of The Drug War." However, Ambinder's claim appears to be more the product of his desire than administration intent. In no area involving law enforcement, military affairs, or civil liberties has President Obama demonstrated the slightest liberal tendency. To the contrary, his administration has been the Bush administration continued. Nothing suggests that President Obama is personally uncomfortable with this approach. Including vigorous enforcement of drug prohibition.

If change is to come, it may have to come from outside the U.S. Washington policymakers continue to believe that attempting to suppress drug use is worth any social cost at home or abroad. Europe has begun to press back, but is largely disconnected from the American drug market.

In contrast, Latin America is the conduit for many of the drugs used in the U.S. And the people in Central and South America are tired of paying in blood for America's policy failure. John Otis of the GlobalPost explained:

Ten years ago, it would have been almost blasphemous to go against U.S. policy and say 'no, I want to take a softer approach toward drugs.' But now almost every president in the region is saying 'this isn't working' and they need to try something else.

Thus, the likelihood of significant reform of existing policy is growing. It won't immediately lead to full legalization, admitted Nadelmann. What Latin American leaders "are saying is we need to give the same consideration to alternative, regulatory and nonprohibitionist and public health policies in the future as we've given to the failed drug war strategies of the last 40 years." However, any relaxation of enforcement would improve the situation, paving the way for more dramatic reforms in the future.

The U.S. government should stop treating a moral and health problem -- drug use -- as a matter for the criminal law. Prohibition didn't work for alcohol. Prohibition isn't working for drugs. Rather than insisting that other nations continue to follow its foolish lead, Washington should follow the lead of other countries in ending the failed War on Drugs.