Legalization of drugs? An imperfect solution

The war on drugs is a failure. How then to severe the tentacles of the drug cartels? To legalize drugs is the solution put forward by some voices that are getting louder and louder. Maybe legalization can change the dynamic of the drug trade for the better, but it will not erase the mafia phenomenon. It will force organized crime to undergo a mutation but not to disappear nor to diminish significantly its power of corruption. Legalization alone does not resolve the root causes of the phenomenon.
No doubt a dramatic shift in drug policy is needed. "Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption simply haven't worked," wrote candidly in the Wall Street Journal at the end of last month three former presidents, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Cesar Gaviria and Ernesto Zedillo. Last November the U.S. Government Accountability Office admitted that the goal of the war on drugs "was not fully achieved." Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, at the recent summit in Vienna acknowledged the "world drug problem has been contained but not solved" and that "when mafias can buy elections, candidates, political parties - in a word power - the consequences can only be highly destabilizing."
The United States spends $1,400 a-second in the war against the drug cartels but with no satisfactory results. Consider the Colombia case. For a decade the U.S. Congress poured almost $6-billion into "Plan Colombia," those explicit goal was to eradicate the production and exportation of cocaine. The U.S. aid contributed to the counter-insurgency strategy of the Colombian government, but did not curtail the cocaine business. According to the CIA, after a decrease between 2001 and 2004, the production of pure cocaine was more then 600 tons in 2007.
Drug cartel violence is not the only perpetuated. Too often state violence was a manifestation of the dark site of the war on drugs. The arbitrariness of power has translated into an increase of human rights abuses, as documented by a report released recently by George Soros' Open Society Institute. Consider again the Colombian case, where the armed forces and the national intelligence agency face a major scandal because of extrajudicial executions, "false positives," and close ties to paramilitary leaders who are also drug kingpins. In these cases, by committing systematic abuse the state ends up mimicking the horrors of those it defines as its enemy.
Before this grim picture, some suggest legalization as the only viable path to victory. The proponents claim legalization would put kingpins out of business, decrease violence, increase the emphasis on treatment of addicts, and would raise taxation by almost $33 billion annually (according to Harvard professor Jeffrey A. Miron).
What the legalization proponents fail to consider, is that organized crime has proved to be extremely adaptive. If as a consequence of legalization, cocaine will no longer be a profitable business, the mafias will turn -as it is already happening - to other illegal and lucrative profits. New waves of violence will accompany this process of mutation. Colombia is again a case in point. Over the last years, so-called emergent groups, reminiscent of the demobilized paramilitary, are occupying territories where the central government expects to promote development projects such as industrial oil palm. Aleman, the former top commander of the Elmer Cardenas paramilitary group, revealed to prosecutors that Vicente Castaño (a founder of the Colombian paramilitary and a major drug kingpin who was allegedly killed a few months ago) "has some people who have staked out land for palm in the [Choco] region." The accumulation of land for African palm cultivation is one reason internal displacement has not decreased in Colombia.
In regions of Colombia marked by the armed conflict, long-standing and deep inequalities and structures of exclusion, the trade of cocaine has represented a means for survival and an opportunity to ascend rapidly the social latter and influence the political process. Legalization will not in itself address these root causes of the cocaine phenomenon in Colombia. Promoting fair conditions for human security will be decisive in transforming social reality.
Supporters and critics of drug legalization agree on the need for a shift in focus from repression to prevention and treatment. "The long-term solution is to reduce demand for drugs in the main consumer countries," wrote the three former Latin American presidents. This has been also a long-standing position of Barack Obama, who as a president already started to implement the campaign promise to "focus more on a public-health approach" to drug abuse. Indicators were the recent appointment of Gil Kerlikowske, the chief of the Seattle Police Department, as the White House drug czar and Vice President Biden's announcement of a new emphasis on alternative drug courts. These are important steps, but are not sufficient. When it comes to the emergency in Mexico, for instance, the Obama administration needs to stop the flow of US guns to Mexican drug cartel and review the Merida Initiative, which assures US aid to Mexico and Central America; having an exclusive focus on military assistance, the aid needs to support a more comprehensive approach.