Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Blue Ribbon Latin American Commission indicts war on drugs

The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy has just issued a short report that calls for reframing the drug problem. There is nothing in the report that experienced reformers would find new. But it has the virtue of simply and cogently expressing a common sense approach in general terms.

The report recognizes that our current approaches -- in Latin America, in the U.S., and in Europe -- have largely failed to prevent the widespread production and consumption of illegal drugs. The current approach has resulted in a rise in organized crime and unacceptable levels of violence and corruption.

The report notes that discussion of the subject has been surrounded by taboos, prejudices, fears and ideological positions. Advocates of particular positions are dismissed out of hand because of these taboos, and legitimate approaches are ignored out of the fear of being so dismissed. The report urges differentiation among the various substances according to their harms, and recognition of the diversity of national situations.

The report notes the limit of repressive strategies directed at drug users, but affirms the need for repressive strategies against the organized crime networks. It grounds its solution in the need to curb the demand for illicit drugs. It fails to explicitly observe that the illicit status of the drugs is more easily controlled than the demand for the drug.

The report suggests that Latin America can move from being a "problem region" to a "pioneering region" by changing the paradigm for action. It urges treating drug users differently so that their status is not that of drug buyer in the illegal market but patient cared for in the public health system. This section does not address the consumption by users who are not addicts and whose use is not a public health problem. But this point does note that the violence and corruption "can only be effectively countered if [the drug trade's] sources of income are substantially weakened."

The report urges the evaluation "from a public health standpoint" and "on the basis of the most advanced medical science" the "convenience" of decriminalizing the possession of cannabis for personal use. Very importantly, the report notes that "decriminalizing drugs as an isolated measure, disconnected from a strong investment in information and education to reduce consumption," could have the contrary effect of worsening the problems of drug addiction. Perhaps more importantly, the failure to make this connection dooms any proposal in the political arena. To talk about changing the drug laws without talking about coupling that effort to demand reduction fails to address the concerns of parents, clergy, and much of civil society. The investment in consumption reduction must never be merely implicit, if a reform proposal is to be taken seriously.

Of course, the report affirms the urgency of an unrelenting fight against organized crime.

Finally, the report urges that the strategies of repression against the cultivation of illicit drugs be reframed. It calls for strongly financed alternative development programs, but notes the legal uses of plants and their ancestral use.

The report suggests that the inauguration of the Barack Obama Administration "offers a unique opportunity to reshape a failed strategy."

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