Pubdate: Tue, 01 Jul 2003
Source: Foreign Policy (US)
Section: Jul - Aug 2003 Issue
Copyright: 2003 Foreign Policy
Author: Ethan Nadelmann
Note: Ethan Nadelmann is founder and executive director of the Drug 
Policy Alliance in New York City.


It's time for Latin America to start breaking with Washington over 
the war on drugs.

President George W. Bush's early pronouncements about the importance 
of Latin America raised hopes for a new golden era in relations 
between the United States and its neighbors. But things haven't quite 
worked out according to expectation. Skirmishes over trade, economic 
policy, and the war in Iraq have completely eroded the optimism that 
greeted Bush's arrival in the White House two and a half years ago. 
Meanwhile, the region's manifold problems have only intensified. 
Rather than continuing to wait for a regional partnership that exists 
in communique form only, Latin America must begin to act in its own 
best interest. It can start by disentangling itself from the 
unwinnable war on drugs.

The futility of the war on drugs has long been obvious, but the 
evidence of failure grows starker each year. Attacking the supply 
side has yielded nothing: Drugs are cheaper, purer, and more 
plentiful than ever. Despite crop-eradication programs, there is 
substantially more opium poppy and coca cultivated today than there 
was two decades ago. Attempting to stamp out the supply of drugs is 
like pushing on a balloon—cut off production in one country and 
another quickly fills the void. Colombia, for instance, produced no 
heroin 15 years ago. Now the country is the leading supplier to the 
United States, having replaced Mexico, Turkey, Southeast Asia, and 
Southwest Asia, each of which was a major source of heroin at one 
time or another.

Far from improving the health of nations, the war on drugs has cut a 
swath of misery and corruption throughout Latin America. Just as they 
have done in Medellin and other Colombian cities, drug gangs are 
turning the streets of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo into free-fire 
zones. Across the region, tens of thousands of farmers have seen both 
their livelihoods and land destroyed. (The pesticides and herbicides 
that are used to stamp out illicit crops frequently cause lasting 
environmental damage.) The enormous economic dislocation and 
intensifying waves of social unrest in Latin America are the results 
of failed prohibitionist policies, not drugs per se.

In all of human history, no society has ever been drug free, nor will 
any be so in the future. Drugs are not going to disappear; the 
challenge is to mitigate the harm they cause. The wisest course for 
Latin America would be legalization. The presidents of Mexico, 
Brazil, Bolivia, and Uruguay have all said or hinted as much. But 
legalization is still too radical an option; it is a commonsense 
solution whose time has not quite arrived. For now, countries in 
Latin America can lower the toll of both drugs and the war on drugs 
by pursuing three strategies: embracing the concept of "harm 
reduction," rehabilitating the cultivation and sale of coca, and 
creating a "coalition of the willing" to resist Washington's 
simplistic prohibitionist paradigm.

First, do no harm. The "harm reduction" approach, which was pioneered 
in Europe and Australia in the 1980s, uses a variety of 
means—methadone and heroin maintenance programs, needle exchanges, 
safer injection sites, and cannabis "coffee shops"—to reduce the 
personal destruction of drug use (overdoses and infectious diseases) 
and the social costs (criminality and black markets). It is a 
pragmatic policy that treats drugs for what they are: a public health 
issue, not a criminal justice one. With HIV/AIDS and drug abuse 
spreading throughout the region, some Latin American countries are 
already pursuing these ideas, but broader, more sweeping initiatives 
are needed. Harm reduction is also a sensible way of addressing 
illegal drug production and trafficking. Blanket suppression often 
proves counterproductive. De facto regulation, which is what harm 
reduction essentially amounts to, is the key to combating Latin 
America's worst drug-related problems.

Restore coca's good name. At the same time, the region should move to 
relegalize the sale of coca-based products. The coca plant, 
indigenous to Bolivia and Peru, has a number of sound uses and may 
well offer health and medicinal benefits. For instance, coca contains 
high levels of both calcium and phosphorus. The World Health 
Organization documented these positive effects in a landmark study 
produced in 1995. There was a thriving global market for coca a 
century ago. There would surely be substantial worldwide demand today 
for coca-based products such as lozenges, gums, teas, and tonics were 
it not for the current restrictions, and lifting them would provide a 
much-needed boost to economic development in both Bolivia and Peru. 
The effort to eradicate coca has been a complete flop, and a cruel 
one, too. The entire region should undertake a campaign to relegitimize coca.

Create Latin America's own "coalition of the willing." Indeed, the 
effort to bring some sanity to the discussion of drugs must be a 
regional project. No one Latin American government can stand up to 
Washington. But bullying Bolivia with the threat of an aid cutoff is 
one thing; bullying an entire region is quite another, and the United 
States would have a real problem were it to face an organized revolt 
involving a number of Latin American countries.

Such a coalition would attract members beyond Latin America. In 
Europe and Oceania, support for the war on drugs, never enthusiastic, 
has waned. Jamaica is in the process of decriminalizing cannabis. 
Change is also afoot to the north: Canada is moving forward with 
cannabis decriminalization, heroin maintenance trials, and safer 
injection sites. In short, when it comes to drugs, the United States 
is increasingly out of step with its neighbors and allies.

Now is a propitious moment for Latin America to break with the drug 
policies imposed on it by the United States. Leaders in the region 
should call the war on drugs what it is—a failure and a farce—and 
politely tell Washington that Latin America will no longer contribute 
to a callous, misguided effort that undermines the region's economic 
prospects and social cohesion. Were Washington to pitch the 
inevitable fit and threaten sanctions, it might just be reminded that 
when dealing with friends, honesty, not hypocrisy, is usually the best policy.

Ethan Nadelmann is founder and executive director of the Drug Policy 
Alliance in New York City.