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The New War on Drugs: Regulation From Cultivation to Consumption


Cocaine bales on USS Nicholas
One hundred and twelve bales of cocaine seized off the coast of Colombia, loaded onto the USS Nicholas, June 2012. The street value of the bales was estimated to be about $367 million.

The first day this year began with one of the most surprising achievements in the push against the prohibition of drugs in the United States. In Colorado, thousands of people bought cannabis legally after decades of harsh restrictive laws since the so-called war on drugs had been put in place in the 1980s by President Ronald Reagan.

Washington State has followed Colorado’s example to regulate the legal purchase of marijuana — an acknowledgment by both states that the new marijuana laws signal a rethinking of the policies that have marked the war on drugs, with their bans and severe penalties for even small violations.

In 2012, about 99,000 people were jailed in the US for drug-related crimes, say the latest figures from the Department of Justice. In Mexico, the main provider to the entire North American continent, more than 70,000 people were  killed and about 27,000 were enforceably disappeared from 2006 to 2012, all related to drug trafficking, say Mexican government figures.

In a new book, “From Repression to Regulation: Proposals for Drug Policy Reform,” policy experts and academics from South America (Bolivia, Chile and Colombia) and Germany take a stark look at decriminalization, depenalization and regulating illegal drugs. The book was published by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a political foundation financed by the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

José Carlos Campero, a Bolivian international consultant, and Horacio Barrancos, a Bolivian academic and business adviser, propose liberalizing the coca-leaf-to-coca-cocaine production chain, in keeping with their government’s approach, thus reducing the size of the illegal market through such methods as commercial auctions.

Ricardo Vargas Meza, a Colombian researcher at the Transnational Institute, which is based in Amsterdam and “carries out radical informed analysis on critical global issues,” among other work, it says, delves into a model for regulating the drug supply, analyzing the problems with the current system of repression and prohibition of psychoactive substances. Vargas’s model outlines an alternative system that would protect users from contaminated drugs, for starters, and would reduce the competitive aspects of drug trafficking that provide such huge profit benefits to organized crime.

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Other chapters focus on regulating the retail and consumption of plant-based drugs; illegal drug cultivation and legal regulatory options in the United Nations drug-control framework; policy options for drug control in Europe; and a comparison between the illegal cultivation of coca and poppy, offering legal choices for regulation based on experiences in India and Turkey.

The writers’ essays work off the Transnational Institute’s campaign against drug laws and the UN drug-control apparatus as well as a 2009 report published by the Global Commission on Drug Policy. That group, whose membership includes Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, focuses on drug use and its effects on society and incorporates earlier work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which was convened by ex-presidents of  Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.

The book looks closely at how new policies can be written to eliminate the violence and repression that the current policies have wrought, especially in the Americas.

To end the steep consequences of the failed drug war, the essayists present radical proposals that “call for the regulation of the entire value chain, not only in the final consumption,” even though the authors acknowledge that the task is complex, especially in countries with weak democratic institutions, like many in Latin America, where drug-related violence has intensified.

The debate, however, couldn’t be more urgent as worldwide illegal drug use continues to increase; and though the illegal drug market has mutated to new products, marijuana and cocaine are still the most popular substances trafficked and consumed.

Nevertheless, legal prohibition has largely held its course, based on moral grounds, flimsy scientific evidence, stereotypes and discrimination, the book’s authors say. Along the way, prohibition has led to immeasurable damage on the more vulnerable people in Latin American societies, where most of the drugs are cultivated (primarily in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru), except for heroin, which is produced from the 0pium poppy grown mainly in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Laos, the book says.

Since the 1970s, the Netherlands has tolerated consumption of marijuana. In 2000, Portugal followed the Dutch lead with a more radical policy: depenalizing the use of all illegal drugs. In both countries, consumption rates have increased to the same levels as their neighbors’, including Spain and Germany, which suggests that legalization did not affect drug use trends.

The latest example of new action on drug policy can be found in Uruguay. In December, its Congress approved a law that decriminalized all use of marijuana, from production to selling it to the public, to instill better health and public security for the population and to stem the profits of organized crime.

Efforts on reforming illegal drug laws and policies have been increasing within the UN: during a debate in the General Assembly in 2011, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico proposed updating the UN framework on drugs, which relies on three conventions ratified by 183 countries. The debate set off the bureaucratic machinery that led to the General Assembly’s scheduling a major international meeting on drugs for 2016.

“Given the bureaucratic nature of the international system, introducing changes, however small . . .  is a slow and difficult process,” wrote Hans Mathieu, who works for FES in Colombia and is an editor of the book (with Catalina Niño Guarnizo, both of whose biographies are not included in the text).

The review of the international framework therefore “seems unlikely in the near future,” given “the political interests of many of its institutions and most countries’ prejudices and moral judgments about illegal psychoactive drugs.”

The road toward reform will not be easy for the countries most affected by drug trafficking.

In his essay, a Chilean academic, Eduardo Vergara, argues that “upon losing the drug business, it is likely that traffickers would seek to fund themselves through other activities” like smuggling of immigrants and kidnapping, all of which would probably increase violence.

Despite the risks,Vergara advises that before regulating drugs, governments should decriminalize their use — that is, stop enforcing punitive measures against consumption. He also proposes reducing the jailed population convicted for breaking drug laws, as well as setting up an amnesty for dealers, depending on their personal profiles.

But to change the international framework, the US, where most of the illegal drugs are consumed, should be on board. So far, the government has been adamant in keeping the international prohibition in place. A growing portion of the American population, though, seems willing to try a different approach.

The situation in Colorado, where a million dollars’ worth of marijuana was sold on the first day of the new regulation in January 2014, points to a harsh reality: that 55 percent of the American population supports the legalization of cannabis, a recent poll by CNN/ORC International found.

“From Repression to Regulation” emphasizes the realities and the challenges of designing new policies on managing the illegal drug trade and its consumption, precisely when ideas about new paths to handle the problems are being presented and reforms at nationals levels are being considered seriously.

The book provides a solid basis for a discussion on different kinds of regulation, even if  such approaches defeat the private interests and prejudices — and questionable morals — of a bureaucracy that has failed everyone.

“From Repression to Regulation: Proposals for Drug Policy Reform,” Hans Mathieu and Carolina Niño Guarnizo, editors. (978-958-8677-19-4)


Maurizio Guerrero is an award-winning journalist who for 10 years was the bureau chief in New York City and the United Nations of the largest news-wire service in Latin America, the Mexican-based Notimex. He now covers immigration, social justice movements and multilateral negotiations for several media outlets in the United States, Europe and Mexico. A graduate journalist of the Escuela de Periodismo Carlos Septién in Mexico City, he holds an M.A. in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies from the City University of New York (CUNY).

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