What the Drug War Needs is a Debate, Not a Disingenuous Battle Plan

In what was to become a growing trend throughout much of Latin America, the Mexican government unleashed its security forces against the drug cartels several years ago in what ended up being a failed effort at interdiction. The strategy was then to change: On August 23, 2009, Mexico City announced that it would be eliminating jail time for possession of small amounts of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. President Felipe Calderón said that the new law would free up law enforcement resources. Now, Mexican officials can focus on the larger and more lethal drug cartels, rather than cluttering Mexico’s criminal justice system with cases dealing with petty drug dealers and small-time addicts.

While many Mexicans were indifferent about the new law, Washington could not conceal its disappointment with its neighbor. In addition to Mexico, both Brazil and Uruguay later announced the elimination of measures harshly penalizing citizens carrying small amounts of drugs. Likewise, Argentina is planning to enact a decree exempting drug users from the criminal justice system. On September 8, 2009, the Mexican president asked his Attorney General, Eduardo Medina Mora, a key figure and hard-liner in the government’s war on drugs, to step down. This occurred after criticism of the government further escalated when drug lords executed 18 people outside a rehab center in Juarez.

So the question provoked by this series of events is, when it comes to an effective drug strategy, what is the world waiting for? More directly, what will it take for the White House to act? Since the current strategy is clearly not working, why not open up the hemispheric drug policy to public debate for the very first time. The dialogue would want to stress one fundamental point: the anti-drug war quarterbacked by Washington is not working and that a new plan must not focus on the pre-existing and ineffective strategies of interdiction, eradication and prohibition of cocaine, marijuana and heroin.

A clear-cut division between the petty drug dealer, addict, and drug lord in the drug chain may not exist since they all feed on, as well as merge, into one another. If petty drug use is tolerated, it likely means that clients will be buying and shooting up, and that drug lords still will be pushing and profiting. On the other hand, we learned from Prohibition that while alcohol consumption may have slackened, illegal trafficking and associated violence escalated making the situation worse than before it was outlawed. The same can be said about today’s current legislation on drugs.

But failed drug policies are not something exclusive to Mexico. In a television segment produced by CBC news in 2007, the long list of failures of U.S. drug policies were cited. For example, from 2000-2006, the US spent $4.7 billion on Plan Colombia which indirectly forced the relocation of Colombia’s main cocaine producers to more remote areas of the country. Later, another change of methodology in 2005 was introduced due to the fact that levels of cocaine production and consumption ended up being more or less the same as in 2000. Neighboring countries like Peru also saw their drug related statutes return to familiar locations and patterns on the trafficking chart.

Solving the drug problem of course requires humility, given its persistent nature. A still largely untested portal to possibly solving the issue would be to open up constructive debate between the nays and the yeas, involving the U.S. and Mexican authorities and their critics. Rather than scoffing at the idea of opening up communication between those determined to hue to a conventional line like the Obama administration appears to be doing, or, President Calderón’s search for a new policy, why not break the current barriers by opening up dialogue. Let there be discussion with the understanding that more of the same legislation and strategies that failed in the past could not provide the profound resolution for the hemisphere.

Between orthodox viewpoints and their challengers, in which the old principles no longer axiomatically have paramountcy, holding debates would allow partisans to be heard freely, as well as spotlight approaches that could potentially yield a cut in costs. They might offer a more humane strategy for those who require treatment, but not necessarily be candidates for jail time.