by Kristin S.
AS AN AMERICAN EXPAT, I’m no stranger to the horrors the global war on drugs is wreaking in Latin America. As a Californian in particular, my views on drug prohibition are inevitably framed by the violence plaguing my neighbours to the south. Although the Mexican cartel crisis gets occasional coverage here in the British media, the connection between drug prohibition and the spectacular violence practised by those who profit from it is typically ignored. A combination of geographic distance and an incurious media help cushion British citizens from the truth about what’s happening in the Americas.
Although the Mexican government has done its best to fudge the numbers, it now appears that some 50,000 people (perhaps as high as 70,000) have died since Felipe Calderon launched a military assault against the powerful drug cartels. At least 10,000 more have simply gone missing, never to be seen or heard from again. Each day brings more grisly displays of tortured bodies dumped across highways, the steps of city halls, and family neighbourhoods. Corruption infests the highest reaches of the government, the military, and the courts. Despite the Calderon administration’s furious military crackdown, whole regions of Mexico are now effectively under cartel control. The suffering of the Mexican people is nearly incomprehensible to outsiders. Far from the chaos and despair, Britain has largely escaped the soul searching and rethinking of drug policy that the US is slowly but surely undergoing.
WHY THE POLICY RETHINK? Because prohibition itself is responsible for sustaining the black market for drugs. “Consumer” countries like the US import billions of dollars worth of cannabis every year from “producer” countries in Central and South America, accounting for more than half of all cartel revenues. Common sense and even a cursory glance at history tell us that when a substance is prohibited, violent criminals will step in to fill the supply chain. While President Calderon and other Latin American leaders have called on consumer countries around the world—including the UK—to address their voracious appetite for drugs, many of them recognise that after forty years of increasingly heavy-handed global prohibition, demand simply isn’t going anywhere. That’s why countries like Uruguay, Colombia, and Guatemala—who bear the devastating brunt of the global drug war–are experimenting with decriminalisation and other alternatives to militarised prohibition. They’re also putting pressure on the US, as the world’s foremost consumer of drugs, to join them in a new approach.
This is an historic moment, as the countries most victimised by decades of failed drug policy stand up and say, “No more.” Support for decriminalisation and the shifting of drug abuse from a law enforcement issue to one of public health is gaining since Portugal’s progressive approach has proved an astounding success. With tens of thousands of people dying and disappearing each year in Latin America, we have a moral obligation to ensure our drugs policy does not contribute to mass human suffering.
Will alternative drug policies stamp out the Latin American cartels? No, not on their own. Cartels have exploded over the years we’ve wasted growing the black market. Like any good business, they have globalised and diversified. But the fact remains that their profits are still overwhelmingly derived from the global drugs trade. And Brits can no longer bury their heads in the sand beyond the Atlantic, because the cartels have now set up shop in Europe.
PROHIBITION has done nothing to curb demand for cannabis or other drugs, but it has made criminal gangs (who, as you might guess, don’t pay much heed to legal prohibitions) obscenely wealthy. These gangs flourish in communities that lack the infrastructure to keep them in check, allowing them to victimise whole populations through violent repression. We see this on a much smaller scale in our disadvantaged neighbourhoods where criminals control the drugs trade. But while the scale differs, the core problem remains the same. Prohibiting the sale and cultivation of cannabis forces us to either purchase our medicine on the black market or risk everything to produce it ourselves. No one benefits from this state of affairs—except criminals.
When prohibitionists insist that we must reduce demand for drugs at all costs, they are simply tilting at ideological windmills. We must reduce the harm from drugs at all levels, and that requires us to remove criminals from the drugs trade. Whether or not people should use various drugs is a complex and subjective question without a straightforward and objective answer. The West has had four decades to prove that prohibition would reduce demand and therefore supply, and yet we have found it does exactly the opposite. Now it’s time to look at the mounting evidence and adopt rational policies that work. Thousands upon thousands of lives hang in the balance.
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