Latin America rebels against war on drugs

Communists fight for the real ‘game-changer’, writes Eddie Ford - the legalisation of all drugs

Representing a partial rebellion against the United States-led ‘war on drugs’, May 18 saw the publication of a $2.2 million, 400-page drugs review from the 35-member Organisation of American States. Initiated by Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, the study had been formally commissioned at last year’s Summit of the Americas attended by Barack Obama. It came just two weeks before an OAS meeting in Guatemala, where the central topic will be drugs.

Otto Pérez Molina, Guatemala’s president, has openly said that it is time to end the “taboo” on discussing the decriminalisation of drugs and his Uruguayan equivalent, José Mujica - a former Tupamaros guerrilla - has put forward plans to fully legalise the production and sale of marijuana under a state monopoly. Bolivian president Evo Morales has long called for the decriminalisation of the coca leaf, cocaine’s raw material, advocating a “zero cocaine but not zero coca policy”. They and many others will be pushing for major changes in international drugs policy at a special UN general assembly meeting in 2016.

The need for radical and immediate change is obvious. Over the past decade, Washington has spent more than $20 billion on ‘counterdrug’ efforts in Latin America - resulting in carnage. On the supply side, no fewer than 70,000 people have died in Mexico since it launched its US-backed offensive on drug-traffickers and organised crime six years ago - an appalling toll. In the US itself, there are now 15 times more drug dealers incarcerated in prisons than 40 years ago, but with little corresponding reduction in drug use. The United Nations estimates that from 1998 to 2008 the worldwide use of opiates increased by 35%, whilst for cocaine the rise was 27% and cannabis 8.5%. Clearly, far more social destruction has been caused by the west’s ‘war on drugs’ than by the actual misuse of narcotics.

True, the OAS report mainly summarises and distils previous research on the subject. However, it has been billed by some as a ‘game-changing’ study due to the fact that it emphasises the importance of “exploring” the legalisation or decriminalisation of marijuana - meaning that it could potentially mark the beginning of the end for the utterly disastrous policy of blanket drug prohibition. Of course, there have been many supposedly ‘game-changing’ reviews and studies. Most notably, in 2011 there was the 24-page report, which now sounds positively paltry, published by the great and the good on the Global Commission on Drug Policy - such as George P Shultz, a previous US secretary of state; Paul Volcker, ex-chairman of the US federal reserve; the former presidents of Mexico, Chile and Colombia; acclaimed authors Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa; Richard Branson; and Kofi Anan, former UN secretary-general. Not exactly a bunch of hippy slackers.

The Global Commission report represented a scathing attack on current drugs policy - and particularly the criminal role, in every sense, played by the US. Far from reducing the supply and use of drugs or curbing the power of organised crime, the Global Commission report concluded the strategy pursued by the US government and others has - with absolute predictability - had exactly the opposite effect: actually creating the conditions for “rampant lawlessness” and in turn acting to “fuel” organised crime, which now rakes in fabulous profits to the tune of some $300 billion or more a year. Al Capone was small fry compared to modern-day drugs gangsters.

The commission declared - quite correctly - that the policy of drugs prohibition has “failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world”. Instead of punishing users who “do no harm to others”, the worthy panel argued that governments should end criminalisation of drug use; they should experiment with “legal models” that would “undermine” organised crime syndicates; and offer health and treatment services for drug-users in need.

Unsurprisingly, the Global Commission on Drug Policy issued an open letter welcoming the OAS review and called for a “more humane and efficient” drugs policy - it was about time, the authors stressed, that governments around the world are allowed to “responsibly experiment with regulation models that are tailored to their realities and local need”. The commissioners also note that Colorado and Washington have recently approved new laws to effectively decriminalise cannabis - anyone aged over 21 in Colorado will soon be able to buy in special retail stores up to an ounce of marijuana (they must be sold in child-resistant packages with labels that specify potency).


In some respects, the OAS study is a lengthier follow-up to the Global Commission’s review - which so far has had no impact at all on policy-makers in the US and Europe. The mad war continues, even if we have seen partial ceasefires in Colorado and Washington. Unlike the former big wigs on the commission though, when it comes to the OAS you are dealing with existing heads of governments - so at the very least it will be harder to ignore their findings.

Another obvious significance lies in the fact that OAS countries are where the majority of illicit drugs are either produced - most of the world’s cocaine originates in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia - or pass through. Thus Colombian-made drugs go through Mexico on their way to their main destination - the US, of course, which seems to have an insatiable appetite for cocaine. Therefore, in essence, a North American problem has become a Latin America problem - on an enormous and catastrophic scale, as ruthless gangsters fight for control of vital trafficking routes.

With such vast profits to be made, these gangs do not pussyfoot around - if someone gets in your way, then you rub them out. For example, in May 2011, as part of the longstanding turf war between the Mexican drugs cartel, the Zetas, and the Guatemalan syndicate, the Leones, 27 ordinary farm labourers on a north Guatemalan farm were slaughtered - mainly beheaded with machetes - merely because they were employed by someone believed to have stolen a 2,000-kilo shipment of cocaine from the Zetas.

In his foreword to the review, José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the OAS, claims that “growing media attention” regarding the effects of the drugs war, including social media, “reflects a world in which there is far greater awareness” of the violence and suffering associated with the drugs war; we now have, he continues, a “much better grasp” of the human and social costs not only of drug use, but also of the production and transit of controlled substances. According to Insulza, the OAS review is the start of a “long-awaited discussion”.

Purposely designed not to step on too many toes, the report walks a very careful - and painful - line by not explicitly recommending any single approach or solution to the drug problem. No-one in the OAS is “defending any position - neither legalisation, nor regulation, nor war at any cost”, to use the words of president Santos in a statement greeting the review. Rather, as we are told repeatedly, the drugs problem requires a “flexible approach” - one that at some stage could “lead to the possibility of amending domestic legislation” or “promoting changes to international law”. Having said that, we read that it “would be worthwhile to assess existing signals and trends” that “lean toward” the decriminalisation or legalisation of the production, sale and use of marijuana. “Sooner or later,” says the report, “decisions in this area will need to be taken”. On the other hand, the report finds “no significant support” among OAS leaders for the decriminalisation/legalisation of cocaine - the very drug which, through the laws prohibiting it, is having the greatest and most destructive impact upon Latin America.

The study goes on to examine four different scenarios for confronting the illegal drugs trade. The first three are ones that shift from the “repressive” status quo to situations that “privilege citizen security” (or “institution building”), involve “experimentation” with legal changes to drugs and the overall strengthening of “community resilience”. All scenarios offer a chance for leaders to replace “indiscriminate detention and rights abuses” with approaches that distinguish between users and traffickers, and offer “community-based health services.” The last approach - labelled “disruption” - is what could happen if the OAS countries are “incapable in the short run of reaching a shared vision” that allows them to “join forces to address the problem”. If they cannot get their act together, in other words. Under this doomsday scenario - or warning to the US administration - one or more Latin American state unilaterally abandons the drugs war on the grounds that the human and economic costs are just too high, leading to the creation of “narco-states”, as the report puts it.

In other words, the OAS report - albeit shrouded in diplomatic and stupendously cautious language - is telling North America and Europe that the current situation will change, with or without them. It is inevitable. Ultimately, drug use should be viewed primarily as a public health issue and not a criminal matter.

The response of the US administration to the OAS review has been typically reckless and irresponsible - no change in policy. Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for the White House’s ‘drug tsar’, rejected “any suggestion” that the US or any other American country should legalise drugs like heroin, cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, etc. According to Lemaitre, presumably speaking for the US government as a whole, legalisation runs “counter” to an “evidence-based, public-health” approach to drugs policy and “are not viable alternatives”. The ‘war on drugs’ must continue, no matter what the cost. What are they going to do next - fly squadrons of drones non-stop over Colombia and Mexico?


Communists, however, unambiguously call for the full legalisation of all drugs - not just marijuana. For us that is the only real ‘game-changer.’ Not because we naively believe that legalisation is some sort of magic wand that will instantly usher in a Nirvana of perfectly adjusted, non-alienated individuals. We fully recognise the danger of drugs, both legal and illegal. Why do some people drink so much alcohol that it endangers their health? It has something to do with the society we live in - an alienated and grossly unequal one.

No, our call for legalisation is principally motivated by the desire not to make a bad situation worse. Huge swathes of the population are criminalised by the current prohibitive drugs laws and for communists that is unacceptable, morally and rationally. All serious evidence and research, plus plain empirical observation, informs us that the legalisation of drugs would be far less harmful than the present regime. Portugal, where drugs have been decriminalised, has not seen an increase in use - rather, the opposite.

It is utterly absurd that one drug (ie, alcohol) is tolerated, even promoted, whilst another (ie, cannabis) - which by any scientific or objective analysis is a far less dangerous substance - is criminalised. We should sweep aside the policy of drug bans - it failed in relation to alcohol during the dark days of prohibition in the US (1920-33) and it is failing now. Highly beneficially, at a single stroke the gangsters’ lucrative businesses would be wiped out - no more get-rich-quick profits to be made. No more gang murders.

For communists the crucial struggle is for the socialisation of drug-taking, whether it be alcohol, cannabis, ecstasy, magic mushrooms - whatever your drug of choice. Without legalisation that is not possible: for example, if only certain drugs are grudgingly tolerated in ‘officially’ designated zones, a stigma will still be attached. At the end of the day, smoking a joint or drinking a pint of beer presents no inherent dangers, either to yourself or society as a whole. Any more than kite-flying, cricket, hill climbing or driving a bike. Civilisation will not collapse as a consequence, whatever the Daily Mail may say.

Legalisation would also have the instant practical advantage of allowing for quality control, such as we now have with regards to drink - unless you are daft enough to buy bootleg spirits. Your local pub tells you exactly what the strength and potency of each beer is, so you can gauge or plan - more or less - what and how much you drink. How the hell can you do that with illegal drugs? Yes, normally speaking, it is not in the self-interest of ‘dealers’ to kill off their customers - especially if they happen to be workmates, friends and family, as they often are. But, when all is said and done, a profit-hungry seller higher up in the food chain - perhaps feeling pressed by the arrival of a new rival in the area - might well resort to adulterating the drugs he sells to recoup his losses, potentially causing damage and death. Just as you can ‘drink responsibly’, so you can smoke marijuana or ingest Ecstasy responsibly - if you know what you are taking and feel comfortable with the environment and company.