Pubdate: Sat, 27 Jun 2009
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2009 The Economist Newspaper Limited


At Last, a Debate

And an Intemperate Defence of Prohibition

Cardoso Calls for New Thinking

EVER since George Bush senior launched "the war on drugs" in earnest
two decades ago, Latin American governments have been more or less
willing belligerents. That was partly because of the carrot and stick
of American aid and bullying, but mainly because they suffer the brunt
of the violence and corruption inflicted by trafficking mafias. Yet
now there are signs of a rethink.

The clearest came in February when the Latin American Commission on
Drugs and Democracy, a group headed by three former
presidents--Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of
Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico--published a report arguing
that the violent crime and corruption generated by drug prohibition is
undermining democracy and that the drug war has "failed". They called
for a public debate on alternatives, including treating drug use as an
issue of public health rather than criminal law, and decriminalising

This approach is gaining adherents. At least one minister in Brazil's
government agreed with the report. Even as it battles the drug gangs,
Mexico has decided that people caught with small amounts of drugs
should be treated rather than prosecuted. Argentina and Ecuador are
considering more radical decriminalisation. Mr Cardoso, who has
retired from political office, has since gone further than the
commission and called for the decriminalisation of cocaine. He says
that many active politicians privately agree with him. And in the
United States, the Obama administration has signalled a shift away
from drug "war" and mass incarceration and towards policies that treat
drugs as a health issue.

This fracture in the taboo on questioning drug prohibition seems to
have rattled Antonio Maria Costa, the boss of the United Nations
Office on Drugs and Crime. In his preface to the annual World Drug
Report, released this week, he concedes that drug users need "medical
help not criminal retribution".

But he also implies that proponents of drug legalisation--who include
The Economist--are really seeking fresh sources of tax revenue to
rescue failed banks. (No, Mr Costa, to pay for drug treatment and
education.) Grotesquely, he equates legalising drugs and human
trafficking. (Drugs primarily harm the user whereas trafficking harms
others.) He claims legalisation would "unleash a drug epidemic in the
developing world". (That is what prohibition is achieving, because the
criminal gangs it generates in developing countries have started
supplying their local markets.) He smears his critics as "pro-drug"
(as absurd as suggesting he is "pro-crime"). This kind of hysteria
smacks of an organisation that is not just losing an unwinnable war
but losing the argument.