Just Legalize It: ‘Ending the War on Drugs’ Conference in Washington

Just legalize it, already—that was the message heard at the Cato Institute's “Ending the War on Drugs” conference on November 15. From the heavy death toll in Mexico to the high financial cost to U.S. taxpayers, the only winners in the drug war have been the drug cartels and security companies. Yet the war goes on with no end in sight

November 28, 2011


Just legalize it, already—that was the message heard at the Cato Institute's “Ending the War on Drugs” conference on Tuesday, November 15. From the heavy death toll in Mexico to the high financial cost to U.S. taxpayers, the only winners in the drug war have been the drug cartels and security companies. Yet the war goes on, continuing to drain blood and billions, with no immediate end in sight. The only thing left to do, according to several of the speakers, including leading Mexican voices like Jorge Castañeda and Vicente Fox, is for the United States to put an end to prohibition.

Ending the War on Drugs (theminorityreportblog.com)
Jorge Castañeda, the former Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Mexico, opened the conference and set the tone for the rest of the day, arguing that U.S. drug policies have failed and that ending prohibition is the only reasonable option left. Castañeda also said that Mexico's war on drugs, started by Mexican president Felipe Calderón in 2006, was based upon three false premises: first, violence in Mexico had been increasing; second, drug consumption had been rising; and third, the cartels were taking over.

According to Castañeda, these were all untrue, the war on drugs was declared for political reasons. After winning by only a .06% margin “Calderón had to do something spectacular to solidify his election,” said Castañeda, and the Mexican president thought taking down the cartels would be easy. He was wrong. And the results for Mexico have been disastrous.

In addition to the massive death toll, Castañeda highlighted the increase in human rights violations in the country. According to a scathing report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Mexican military has participated in more than 170 cases of torture, 39 disappearances, and 24 extrajudicial killings since Calderón took office.

Mexico's international reputation has also been severely damaged, said Castañeda, which has affected the tourism industry, on which much of country’s economy relies, especially in places like Acapulco, where violence has scared away tourists.

While death and destruction have been on the rise in Mexico since 2006, drug interdiction and consumption in the United States have remained the same, highlighting the need for a change in policy. Castañeda made several proposals for change that he believed would improve Mexico's current situation:

1.  Pull the army back. The military has been a large part of the problem, and taking troops out of the streets is essential to restore normalcy and stop the violence. As Castañeda said, and the HRW report concludes, the Mexican military is trained to kill, not police. Sending troops to combat drug traffickers made the War on Drugs a literal war in the streets of Mexico, resulting in tens of thousands of civilian casualties.

2. Build up a national police force (like the one in Colombia) in order to curtail the violence and focus on crimes that directly affect people, like kidnapping and homicide, rather than combat drug traffickers, which has caused too much bloodshed. In short, Castañeda advised that seeking to stop the transit of drugs is too dangerous to be considered a worthy goal for Mexico. “It makes no sense for us to fill 50,000 body bags just to stop drugs from coming into the U.S.,” he said.

3.  The United States must legalize drugs or, at the very least, seek another viable option. However, Castañeda suggested that while the United States needs to make that decision, Mexican officials need to realize their own role, and “the next Mexican government needs to come clean on the question of legalization.” This would help focus the message and help the Mexican government have a greater influence on U.S. policy.

In addition, other Latin American governments also need to have their voices heard, including Colombia. Ideally, this would include the Mexican and Colombian governments lobbying the United States towards legalization. It would be difficult, but the two countries have the “moral authority,” Castañeda said, to advocate for U.S. legalization, because they have been the ones suffering the consequences of America's prohibitionist policies.

In a pre-recorded, televised interview, former Mexican president Vicente Fox echoed a near-identical plan, but with a more critical tone towards the way the United States has handled the situation. Fox blamed U.S. drug consumption and criticized the Bush and Obama administrations for not making drug policy a priority. He also argued that American politicians have not paid attention to trends, citing the oft-quoted Gallup poll that found that half of Americans favor legalization of marijuana. “The United States government has to be aware of these trends and not live in the past,” Fox said.

The former president even gave a light ultimatum to the United States. When asked if Mexico should be more forceful in shaping American drug policy, Fox said, “The time is coming. Either the U.S. rethinks its strategy, or Mexico will.” While acknowledging that the decision is still the United States’s to make, Fox seemed to mock American policy makers' fixation on Christianity and freedom. “Prohibition [hasn’t worked] since the first time it was tried with the apple in the Garden of Eden,” he said, using an analogy he has made in previous interviews. Fox later made the “freedom” argument, saying, “We should respect everyone's freedom and freedom of choice.” These comments suggest that U.S. politicians are not paying enough attention to the Bible or the Constitution, a clever attack if this was Fox's intention.

In an attempt to demonstrate what an anti-prohibitionist change would look like in the United States, Glenn Greenwald, a Salon.com blogger and constitutional scholar, spoke about the decriminalization of drugs in Portugal since 2001, which he researched for the Cato Institute in 2006.

Many prohibitionists, including former drug czar, John P. Walters, argue that legalization and even decriminalization of drugs would lead to increased usage, causing the United States to become a drug-crazed society. However, explained Greenwald, data from Portugal prove that notion to be false. Decriminalization in Portugal has changed the relationship between the government and people and freed up financial resources for treatment of drug addiction, which is now considered a health problem rather than a criminal one.

Decriminalization eliminated the “wall of fear” between the government and the people. In the 1990's, said Greenwald, Portugal had a drug crisis. Usage was high, but the criminalization of drugs made it difficult for Portuguese officials to dissuade people from using drugs since users were simply afraid of the government. How could the government effectively reach out to drug users if there was a possibility users might go to jail?

By implementing a policy that ceased to consider drug usage as a punishable crime, Portugal was able to “fundamentally change the relationship between government and citizenry to one that's more beneficial,” described Greenwald. That fundamental change also had financial benefits—probably the most important factor when it comes to government policies. Instead of spending large amounts of money on incarceration, they were able to free up money on less costly treatment options. Because both options are expensive, criminalization and treatment had been mutually exclusive for Portugal. And since the former had been ineffective for so long, the Portuguese government chose to test the latter.

Under the new system in Portugal, drug usage is treated as a health problem. When a person is caught with drugs, they are not sent to an American-style drug court, which Greenwald says are ineffective from the get-go, simply by design. From the judge's black robe, which Greenwald describes as “the symbol of judgment” in America, to the elevated platform and the police in the courtroom, the system in the United States is centered on punishment.

In contrast, drug offenders in Portugal are brought before a Portuguese Dissuasion Commission, which is composed of three officials, one with a legal background and two with a medical or social services background. The “overriding goal of [the] process is to avoid the stigma that arises from criminal proceedings,” Greenwald wrote in his Cato report, “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Lessons for Creating Fair and Successful Drug Policies.”

Furthermore, Greenwald wrote, “Commission members deliberately avoid all trappings of judges, and the hearing is intentionally structured so as to avoid the appearance of a court. Members dress informally. The alleged offender sits on the same level as the commission members, rather than having the members sit on an elevated platform . . . At all times, respect for the alleged offender is emphasized.” The result is that usage in Portugal has decreased, and the government has been better able to combat drug addiction.

The “Ending the War on Drugs” conference hit on all the major points as to why U.S. drug policy has failed and why a legalization or decriminalization approach is the only way to end the bloody and costly war on drugs. Held in Washington, where the broken U.S. drug policy was created, one can only hope that the message was heard, and that there will soon be an end to the unnecessary bloodbath that is happening in Latin America.

But it won't be easy: as one government official, who asked not to be named, told me, “The United States can't be concerned with deaths in other countries. That's not how we shape our policy.”



Ray Downs is a freelance writer, humorist, and a reporter for ChristianPost.com. He lives in New York City. For more on the Mexican drug war, read the May/June 2011 NACLA Report "Mexico's Drug Crisis." For more from Fred Rosen's blog, "Mexico, Bewildered and Contested," visit nacla.org/blog/mexico-bewildered-contested. You can also read NACLA blogs, Border Wars or Traffick Jam, for more on the U.S.-Mexico border or drug trafficking in the region.



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