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Latin American military men against drug war April 14, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Criminal Justice, Drugs, Guatemala, Latin America.
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Roger’s note: There was a time when Canada lead the way.  In 1972, the Le Dain Commission headed by Supreme Court Judge Gerald Le Dain, recommended the decriminalization of soft drugs such as marijuana.  That was exactly 40 years ago.  Although ignored by a succession of Canadian governments to this day, the report was a landmark for a policy of a sane harm reduction approach to the drug problem. 

By Jefferson Morley, www.salon.com, April 13, 2012

In Colombia Obama will hear from presidents looking for alternatives to prohibition

Drug warriors no more: Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos  

Ending drug prohibition is creeping into the U.S. political debate, thanks to a couple of Latin American military men. Oh sure, George Will’s not-quite endorsement of legalization is noteworthy, but more than one erudite conservative columnist has gone further before. The views of three Latin American statesman are important but former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz made the same case 23 years ago. The record high in public support for marijuana legalization found in a Gallup poll last year may be a factor, but the Obama administration has declared a “war on pot” since then.

It is the anti-prohibition campaign of Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, one a former general, the other a former defense minister, that has forced the Obama administration to engage critics respectfully for the first time. Perez will be pushing a formal proposal to open discussion of alternative policies at the summit of American heads of state that President Obama is attending, in Cartagena, Colombia this weekend.

While Obama doesn’t support decriminalization, said his advisor Dan Restrepo this week, “we welcome” the debate. “It’s worth discussing,” Vice President Biden told reporters in Central America last month, “but there’s no possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization.”

So while there’s no change of heart in Washington, there has been a change of tone. The Obama administration cannot afford to blow off the views of two staunch U.S. allies who have both waged drug wars in their countries, not at a time when public opinion in Latin America is increasingly disenchanted with the militarized approach.

Their approach is tactful. Santos says he doesn’t want to change U.S. policy, but merely hear U.S. officials defend it.

“There are good arguments for legalizing, but I would prefer to reach that conclusion after an objective discussion,” Santos told the Washington Post this week. “The U.S. says, ‘We don’t support legalization, because the cost of legalization is higher than no legalization.’ But I want to see a discussion where both approaches are analyzed by experts to say, really, the cost is lower or not.”

In a piece for the Guardian, Perez called for an “intergovernmental dialogue based on a realistic approach – drug regulation. Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that consumption and production should be legalized but within certain limits and conditions … Legalization therefore does not mean liberalization without controls.”

Perez and Santos may not make headlines in Cartagena this weekend. In an effort to lower expectations and avoid confrontation with Obama, Santos told reporters in Cartagena yesterday that drugs should not be the “center of discussion” at the summit. At the same time, he added, a review of drug policy was necessary and reflected the will of the “vast majority” of countries in attendance.

“We will not see any shift in policy,” said Juan Carlos Hidalgo of the Cato Foundation, “but this is forcing Washington to engage and defend its position at high levels.”

“In the public forum, ending prohibition will probably only get a brief discussion,” predicted Ethan Nadelman of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Privately it will be much more vigorously discussed. The challenge for the United States will be how to blur the differences. This is the first time ever that the decriminalization and alternatives to prohibition have ever been on the agenda of a major gathering of heads of states.”

Perez and Santos are still in the minority among Latin American presidents, most of whom say, at least publicly, that they oppose legalization. But the desire for alternatives to legalization and prohibition is widespread. In Mexico, President Felipe Calderon has followed the U.S. approach in declaring war on the cartels in 2006. Some 41,000 people have been killed in the last six years without reducing the supply of drugs or increasing the public’s sense of safety.  Calderon has said legalization might be the only solution but with the Mexican presidential election approaching in July is not going to change his policy. After the election is a different story. The Mexican business community is increasingly supportive of legalization and regulation as the only solution to the country’s appalling levels of violence.

As the calls for reconsideration of drug war have proliferated, the Obama administration sent Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield to Central America to argue for a prohibitionist policy.

“To send three top officials in a month shows that the administration is taking this seriously,” said Hidalgo. “They don’t want this debate to gain ground.”

But the more the administration responds in Latin America, the more legitimate drug policy reform becomes at home.

Jefferson Morley is a staff writer for Salon in Washington and author of the forthcoming book, Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 (Nan Talese/Doubleday).More Jefferson Morley

Obama and the Lethal War on Drugs February 12, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Latin America, Mexico.
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The death toll in Tijuana, Mexico, is now higher than in Baghdad

by Johann Hari

With the global economy collapsing all around us, the last issue President Barack Obama wants to talk about is the ongoing War on Drugs. But if he doesn’t – and fast – he may well have two collapsed and haemorrhaging countries on his hands. The first lies in the distant mountains of Afghanistan. The second is right next door, on the other side of the Rio Grande.

Here’s a starter for 10 about where this war has led us. Where in the world are you most likely to be beheaded? Where are the severed craniums of police officers being found week after week in the streets, pinned to bloody notes that tell their colleagues, “this is so that you learn respect”? Where are hand grenades being tossed into crowds to intimidate the public into shutting up? Which country was just named by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff as the most likely after Pakistan to suffer a “rapid and sudden collapse”?

Most of us would guess Iraq. The answer is Mexico. The death toll in Tijuana today is higher than in Baghdad. The story of how this came to happen is the story of this war – and why it will have to end, soon.

When you criminalise a drug for which there is a large market, it doesn’t disappear. The trade is simply transferred from chemists and doctors to gangs. In order to protect their patch and their supply routes, these gangs tool up – and kill anyone who gets in their way. You can see this any day on the streets of London or Los Angeles, where teen gangs stab or shoot each other for control of the 3,000 per cent profit margins on offer. Now imagine this process on a countrywide scale, and you have Mexico and Afghanistan today.

Drugs syndicates control 8 per cent of global GDP – which means they have greater resources than many national armies. They own helicopters and submarines and they can afford to spread the woodworm of corruption through poor countries right to the top.

Why Mexico? Why now? In the past decade, the US has spent a fortune spraying carcinogenic chemicals over Colombia’s coca-growing areas, so the drug trade has simply shifted to Mexico. It’s known as the “balloon effect”: press down in one place, and the air rushes to another.

When I was last there in 2006, I saw the drug violence taking off and warned that the murder rate was going to rocket – but I didn’t imagine it would reach this scale. In 2007, more than 2,000 people were killed. In 2008, it was more than 5,400 people. The victims range from a pregnant woman washing her car, to a four-year-old child, to a family in the “wrong” house watching television. Today, 70 per cent of Mexicans say they are frightened to go out because of the cartels.

The cartels offer Mexican police and politicians a choice: plato o plomo. Silver or lead. Take a bribe, or take a bullet. Juan Camilo Mourino, the Interior Secretary, admits the cartels have so corrupted the police they can’t guarantee the safety of the public any more. So the US is trying to militarise the attack on the cartels in Mexico, offering tanks, helicopters and hard cash.

The same process has happened in Afghanistan. After the toppling of the Taliban, the country’s bitterly poor farmers turned to the only cash crop that earns them enough to keep their kids alive: opium. It now makes up 50 per cent of the country’s GDP. The drug cartels have a bigger budget than the elected government, so they have left the young parliament, police force and army riddled with corruption and virtually useless. The US reacted by declaring “war on opium”.

The German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that the NATO commander has ordered his troops to “kill all opium dealers”. Seeing their main crop destroyed and their families killed, many have turned back to the Taliban in rage.

What is the alternative? Terry Nelson was one of America’s leading federal agents tackling drug cartels for over 30 years. He discovered the hard way that the current tactics are useless. “Busting top traffickers doesn’t work, since others just do battle to replace them,” he explains. But there is another way: “Legalising and regulating drugs will stop drug market violence by putting major cartels out of business. It’s the one sure-fire way to bankrupt them, but when will our leaders talk about it?”

Of course, the day after legalisation, a majority of gangsters will not suddenly join the Hare Krishnas and open organic food shops. But their profit margins will collapse as their customers go to off-licences and chemists, so the incentives for staying in crime will largely end. We don’t have to speculate about this. When alcohol was legalised, the murder-rate fell off a cliff – and continued to drop for the next 10 years. (Rates of alcoholism, revealingly, remained the same.) No, Obama doesn’t want to spend his political capital on this. He is the third consecutive US President to have used drugs in his youth, but he knows this is a difficult issue, where he could be tarred by his opponents as “soft on crime”.

Yet remember: opinions are febrile in a depression. At the birth of the last great downturn, support for alcohol prohibition was high; within five years, it was gone. The Harvard economist Professor Jeffrey Miron has calculated that drug prohibition costs the US government $44.1bn per year – and legalisation would raise another $32.7bn on top of that in taxes if drugs were taxed like alcohol. (All this money would, in a sane world, be shifted to drug treatment.)

Can the US afford to force this failing policy on the world – especially when it guarantees the collapse both of the country they are occupying and their own neighbour?

Drug addiction is always a tragedy for the addict – but drug prohibition spreads the tragedy across the globe. We still have a chance to take drugs back into the legal regulated economy, before it’s too late for Mexico and Afghanistan and graveyards-full of more stabbed kids on the streets of Britain. Obama – and the rest of us – have to choose: controlled regulation or violent prohibition? Healthcare or warfare?

To join the fight to legalise drugs, good organisations to join are Transform or Stop the Drug War.

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