Pubdate: Thu, 24 Nov 2011
Source: Winnipeg Free Press (CN MB)
Copyright: 2011 Winnipeg Free Press
Author: Gwynne Dyer, Columnist


Like those generals who used to discover nuclear weapons were not a
good thing about 20 minutes after they took off their uniforms and
started collecting their pensions, we have had a parade of former
presidents who knew that the war on drugs was a bad thing -- but only
mentioned it after they were already ex-presidents. Now, at last, we
have one who is saying it out loud while he is still in office.

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, the country that has
suffered even more than Mexico from the drug wars, is an honest and
serious man. He is also very brave, because any political leader who
advocates the legalization of narcotics will become a prime target of
the prohibition industry. He has chosen to do it anyway.

"We are basically still thinking within the same framework as we have
done for the past 40 years," he told the Observer in a recent
interview in Bogota. "A new approach should try and take away the
violent profit that comes with drug trafficking... If that means
legalizing (drugs)... then I will welcome it."

Santos has no intention of becoming a kamikaze politician: "What I
won't do is become the vanguard of that movement (to legalize drugs)
because then I will be crucified. But I would gladly participate in
those discussions, because we are the country that's still suffering
most... from the high consumption in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe in

There are no such discussions, of course. Santos is being disingenuous
about this; he is really trying to start a serious international
debate on drug legalization, not to join one. But the time may be ripe
for such a debate, because it is now almost universally acknowledged
(outside of political circles) that the "war on drugs" has been an
extremely bloody failure.

Twenty years ago Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner, the most
influential economist of the 20th century and an icon of the right,
said: "If you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of
view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel." It is
only because the government makes the drugs illegal that the criminal
cartel has a highly profitable monopoly on meeting the demand.

Friedman also said: "Government never has any right to interfere with
an individual for that individual's own good. The case for prohibiting
drugs is exactly as strong and as weak as the case for prohibiting
people from overeating. We all know that overeating causes more deaths
than drugs do." But there are a quarter-million Americans in jail for
possessing or selling drugs. Nobody is in jail for producing,
marketing or eating junk food.

Friedman was right, of course, but 40 years of the war on drugs have
also shown arguments based on logic, natural justice, or history (the
obvious parallel with alcohol prohibition in the U.S. in the 1920s and
early '30s) have very little effect on policy in the main
drug-importing nations. Many politicians there know that the war on
drugs is futile and stupid, but the political cost of leaving the herd
and saying so out loud is too high.

The political leaders who are starting to say it's time to end the war
and legalize the drugs are almost all in the producer nations, where
the damage has been far graver than in the drug-importing countries.
In practice, therefore, they are almost all Latin American leaders --
but even there they have waited until they left office to make their
views known.

Former Mexican president Vicente Fox supported the U.S.-led war on
drugs when he was in office in 2000-06, but more recently he has
condemned it as an unmitigated disaster. "We should consider
legalizing the production, sale and distribution of drugs," he wrote
on his blog. "Radical prohibition strategies have never worked."

"Legalization does not mean that drugs are good," Fox added, "but we
have to see it as a strategy to weaken and break the economic system
that allows cartels to make huge profits, which in turn increases
their power and capacity to corrupt."

Naturally, Fox only said all that when he was no longer president,
because otherwise the U.S. would have punished Mexico severely for
stepping out of line. In the same spirit, former presidents Fernando
Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Ernesto
Zedillo of Mexico made a joint public statement that drug prohibition
had failed in 2009 -- after they had all left office.

But gradually, Latin American leaders are losing their fear of
Washington. Last year Mexican President Felipe Calderon called for a
debate on the legalization of the drug trade, although he carefully
stressed he himself was against the idea. (Then why did you bring it
up, Felipe?) And now Santos of Colombia has come out, still
cautiously, to say that he would consider legalizing not only
marijuana but cocaine.

The international discussion on legalization Santos wants will not
start tomorrow, or even next year, but common sense on drugs is
finally getting the upper hand over ignorance, fear and dogmatism. And
cash-strapped governments will eventually realize how much the balance
sheet could be improved by taxing legalized drug consumption rather
than wasting hundreds of billions in a futile attempt to reduce
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MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.