The Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy has sparked an intense debate because the commission stated bluntly that the war on drugs has failed. The conservatives’ response came shortly, pointing to Colombia as a good example of success. However, the conservative point of view is shortsighted: many efforts to combat drugs are indeed a failure, crime is escalating in Latin America and drug use continues to be high. The root of the problem continues unaddressed.
According to the UN report, experts perceive the drug problem as increasing. Indeed, despite the fact that heroin and cocaine consumption is declining in Western Europe and North America respectively, other regions have increased drug use. However, those two regions are still the biggest and most profitable markets, as 90% of the added value of drugs is there and only 10% is left in the producing regions, according to Raúl Rivera, author of NuestraHora: los latinoamericanos en el siglo XXI (our time: Latin Americans in the 21st century).
In spite of the above, most policies have always been about eliminating production and the focus on eliminating demand came very late and it hasn’t been as strong as the first. Simply put, if demand hasn’t been thwarted, then production, ever riskier, will be more and more profitable, maintaining the high human costs in producing countries. As the Global Commission on Drug Policy put it, if a source is eliminated, another replaces it right away. Thus, Colombia’s gains in the war against drugs and crime have prompted a “balloon effect”, which is a geographical displacement of production. Peru, it was said, will surpass Colombia as the largest coca producer in the globe and it is feared that a crackdown will give Peru an increase in violence similar to Mexico.
And so the overseas war continues, with North America and Western Europe not tackling the domestic problem with the same effort, not even close, as it’s always easier to believe that there is an enemy out there. It doesn’t matter if the laws are very strong (in some Asian countries, drug trafficking can be punished with the death penalty) or if the judicial system is effective, consumption continues to rise. Instead of quickly criminalizing users and marginalizing them, it would be useful to look at the drug users’ profile. The UN report states that cannabis users being treated in the US were mostly adolescents or young adults, single, male, had low schooling, were unemployed or studying, and started consumption at an early age. Moreover, most cannabis and cocaine users are actually poly-drug users, that is, they use two or more drugs at the same time, alcohol being the leading complement.
If the drug user profile is assessed, then it becomes obvious that drugs are not the main issue here but merely the end of the road for very troubled lives: uneducated, unemployed and with childhood issues. Not the expected criminal profile, but rather a person urging for some change and with seemingly nowhere to turn to. Drug use is but a symptom of bigger social problems, such as broken families, insufficient education and overall lack of social development.And closing doors make communities immersed in drug issues (whether consumption or production) less and less able to stand up against the problems.
In this regard, the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s proposal of decriminalizing drug use is very interesting, as most are people in need of help and no punishment will aid them. Many argue that doing this will mean a consumption spike and a loss of values. Not quite: the Commission shows that, in the cases of decriminalization, there is no significant increase in drug use, only an increase in par with regional trends. Just as many people don’t smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol, surely many more wouldn’t use other drugs should they become legal.
It also becomes necessary to evaluate why some drugs are not subject to international control. Alcohol and tobacco can be more detrimental to the health than cannabis, which is why many countries are starting to make it mandatory to label cigarettes with health warnings and are cracking down on drunken drivers, among other strategies. This is why Bolivia is withdrawing from the UN convention on drugs, as labeling coca leafs as illegal is against its people’s culture. Why should the mambeo (chewing coca leaf) be criminalized if it doesn’t harm the user or those around him? In fact, there are many products made with coca, which are very healthy, from cookies and iced tea to medicines.
Back to the fight against producers, it is indeed necessary to crack down on criminal organizations that are benefiting from drugs, as the states must ensure that the monopoly of force remains unquestioned in order to have a safe society. Moreover, judiciary systems worldwide need a lot of strengthening to make sure that the rule of law is strong, regardless of the drug problem. However, the focus of this war seems incorrect. Hunting down and either imprisoning or killing drug kingpins is like cutting the heads of the hydra: two new heads will replace the old and so the monster continues to grow strong.
Countries who fight against illegal crops should worry more about developing the communities closer to the crops to make them thriving societies and giving them the security and infrastructure needed to connect them with the rest of the country and driving away illegal groups. More and better state presence can ensure that these people will not turn (or be coerced to turn) to drugs for their sustenance, instead of focusing on eradication by whatever means possible, which can prove to be highly destructive and unethical: people living near the Ecuadorean border have suffered great health losses because of the fumigation of illegal crops, and this is also true for Colombians.
In addition, there should be a solid response to treating drug users ethically and helping them out of their poor situation, as marginalization and criminalization deprives them of a second chance. Moreover, the international community, especially the big drug markets, should also make great domestic efforts to relieve the drug problems of their own population. And no ideology or lobbying should stand in the way of serious policy reform based of facts and treating each country as a different case, as no two situations are exactly the same. If this debate can be done with tobacco and alcohol, it can also be done with other drugs.
Whatever the final outcome of the war on drugs is, drug addiction centers and their staff will keep on working for the rehabilitation of drug abusers who seek their help.
This is not a battle of good vs. evil but a process for human development, as drugs are the tip of the iceberg. The UN report seems to set the ground for continuing the same policies that in so many decades have yielded so little and destroyed so much, while many conservatives, who think that they stand on moral high ground, continue to promote “the good fight.” The drugs issue needs to be intensely debated without demonizing efforts. Only then may other, more fortunate strategies emerge.