August 31, 2009


Having raised the dilemma of the War on Drugs and President Obama’s military expansion in Colombia, energy must now be devoted to the social dimension of this conflict. Considering alternative solutions to the War on Drugs could benefit American society and ease tensions with South America. Obama preaches social programs to compliment military operations and Colombia is no different from the Middle East.

It’s time to listen to South America’s proposals.

Decriminalization is set to become a dominate issue in the next decade as the global drug trade spreads, but the trend isn’t new. In 2001 Portugal decriminalized the personal consumption of marijuana, methamphetamine, heroine, and cocaine after years of European experimentation with drug laws. The program is being hailed a success, as profiled by Time and The Economist, and cited by South American countries as a model. South American states claim they have firsthand experience that harsh drug laws fail to eliminate drug production, crime, or use, and are seeking to reframe the debate.

Brazil, hoping to alleviate a swelling prison population, has softened its laws on possession a number of times with a continual progression towards liberalization. Analysts at the time believed other countries wouldn’t be follow because of US pressure against decriminalization, and they were partially right. In 2006 Mexico passed a decriminalizing bill only for then-Mexican President Vicente Fox, a supporter, to veto it after blow-back from the Bush administration. Decriminalization went against America’s “tough on crime” policy.

But America hasn’t deterred Uruguay, Peru, and Colombia from relaxing their drugs laws on possession. South American countries have become disenchanted with America's policy of prohibition and are seeking to upend the status quo. Pressure from the last decade exploded in February when three ex-heads of state - Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and César Gaviria of Colombia - denounced America’s War on Drugs and called not just for a new approach, but a new way of thinking.

“We need to break the taboo that’s blocking an honest debate,” said Cardoso. “Numerous scientific studies show that the damage caused by marijuana is similar to that of alcohol or tobacco.”

His critique enjoined South America with Europe’s concern that America is pursing an ideological rather than pragmatic policy. Specifically they want to decouple the War on Drugs, a worldwide phenomena, from America’s own moral values. Cesar Gaviria, citing an October report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office showing drug reduction in Colombia as incomplete, complained, “It makes no sense to continue a policy on moral grounds without getting the desired results. Obama, being a pragmatist, should recognize these failures.”

Clearly South America is looking for a new direction from President Obama, one that shifts the burden from the consumer to society. Europe too wants him to push drug use into the public health sphere and turn incarceration into rehabilitation and economic opportunity. Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of the Global Drug Policy Program at the Open Society Institute, cites East Europe as an overwhelming failure in the War on Drugs. Like South America’s leaders, she too believes the War on Drugs has become an ideology, not strategy.

They’d like to transfer the focus from military and security operations to social and economic reform. Military and law enforcement is the dominant expenditure in most wars. The Mérida Initiative (Plan Mexico) allocates roughly two thirds of $1.6 billion to security and law enforcement. Plan Colombia similarly poured $4.9 billion into the Colombian military and National Police and 1.3 billion into social programs. The result is improving security but marginal decreases in production and usage. Whether coincidence or a sign of the times, Mexico finally passed its legislation two weeks ago to decriminalized the major drugs.

Only five days later Argentina's Supreme Court legalized small amounts of marijuana for personal use.

Not everyone is in favor of decriminalization. Colombia's Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez has warned of the a new type of trafficking, micro-trafficking, that evolves around drug laws. He said decriminalization is used, “as a mechanism for distribution.” Drug dealers sell unlimited quantities of "personal" doses, which can then be trafficked indiscreetly. A similar pattern has been reported in decriminalized states like Chile, but is simply more proof that drugs are an inevitable part of society.

The basic tenet of decriminalization is that prohibition cannot be enforced, therefore societies should seek to manage drug use. Personal consumption in low levels may be tolerated. Non-violent offenders go to rehab or counseling, not jail. To prevent HIV more extreme measures may be taken, like in Portugal and Switzerland, to provide safe environments for heroin use. South America’s trio went advocated legalization of Marijuana under the theory that the process has to start somewhere.

America for its part appears willing to reexamine its War on Drugs. Decriminalization is more talked about than ever during an economic crisis full of budget deficits. That Mexico’s violence has continued to rise helps the cause. New York Governor David Paterson finally overturned the notorious Rockefeller laws, the enemy of a thousand rappers, and will now send offenders to treatment instead of prison. These are signs of a fluid debate.

President Obama must ensure he gets behind the wave, not stand in front of it. He stands to benefit greatly if he does so.

He’s likely to win support in America. Keep in mind that he’s only opening the debate, not deciding it. The point is to hold a discourse in society instead issuing one-sided proclamations from the government. Americans, heavy drug users themselves, are open to alternative solutions to alleviate the justice system and protect privacy. President Obama would win many allies if a restructured drug treatment policy cut costs, upheld rights, and lowered overall demand.

He’d gain a similar boost from South Americans and Europeans if he switched the debate from morality (subjective) to science (objective); the War on Drugs has emulated 17th century astronomy and the Church. A receptive ear would help expand US military operations, which look more palatable accompanied with social programs equal to those operations. Colombia is news today, but Peru and Bolivia aren't far behind. They may need help too.

By observing the trends in South America and Europe, President Obama has an opportunity to help people overcome drug addiction and combat the War on Drugs more effectively. He shouldn’t just say no.


  1. Armed conflict is almost always about dick-measuring and almost never addresses the underlying grievances that sparked the calls-to-arms. Social efforts are always the real battle-front. Inter-state conflict is now only one way among many that we wage war, and therefore, the notion of fighting drugs with guns is lacking, as you point out.

    Turning an illicit economic activity into a licit one is brilliant on all fronts. I've seen several analysts saying that the US and the West as a whole should purchase opium from Afghans to fuel our pharma industry rather than thinking along the lines of eradication. To the extent that this would create a feedback loop with the Taliban et al would make it moot. In South America, however, where the war is with drugs specifically, something along these lines seems plausible.

  2. Debaters debate the two wars as if Nixon’s civil war on Woodstock Nation didn’t yet run amok. One needn’t travel to China to find indigenous cultures lacking human rights or to Cuba for political prisoners. America leads the world in percentile behind bars, thanks to ongoing persecution of hippies, radicals, and non-whites under banner of the war on drugs. If we’re all about spreading liberty abroad, then why mix the message at home? Peace on the home front would enhance credibility.

    The drug czar’s Rx for prison fodder costs dearly, as lives are flushed down expensive tubes. My shaman’s second opinion is that psychoactive plants are God’s gift. In God’s eyes, it’s all good (Gen.1:12). The administration claims it wants to reduce demand for cartel product, but extraditing Canadian seed vendor Marc Emery increases demand. Mr. Emery enables American farmers to steal cartel customers with superior domestic product.

    The constitutionality of the CSA (Controlled Substances Act of 1970) derives from an interstate commerce clause. This clause is invoked to finance organized crime, endanger homeland security, and throw good money after bad. Official policy is to eradicate, not tax, the number-one cash crop in the land. America rejected prohibition, but it’s back. Apparently, SWAT teams don’t need no stinking amendment.

    Nixon promised the Schafer Commission would support the criminalization of his enemies, but it didn’t. No matter, the witch-hunt was on. No amendments can assure due process under an anti-science law without due process itself. Psychology hailed the breakthrough potential of LSD, until the CSA halted all research. Marijuana has no medical use, period.

    The RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993) allows Native American Church members to eat peyote, which functions like LSD. Americans shouldn’t need a specific church membership to obtain their birthright freedom of religion. Denial of entheogen sacrament to any American, for mediation of communion with his or her maker, precludes free exercise of religious liberty.

    Freedom of speech presupposes freedom of thought. The Constitution doesn’t enumerate any governmental power to embargo diverse states of mind. How and when did government usurp this power to coerce conformity? The Mayflower sailed to escape coerced conformity. Legislators who would limit cognitive liberty lack jurisdiction.

    Common-law must hold that adults own their bodies. The Founding Fathers decreed that the right to the pursuit of happiness is inalienable. Socrates said to know your self. Lawmakers should not presume to thwart the intelligent design that molecular keys unlock spiritual doors. Persons who appreciate their own free choice of path in life should tolerate seekers’ self-exploration.

    Simple majorities in each house could repeal the CSA. The books have ample law on them without the CSA. The usual caveats remain in effect. You are liable for damages when you screw up. Strong medicine requires prescription. Employees can be fired for poor job performance. No harm, no foul; and no excuse, either. Replace the war on drugs with a frugal, constitutional, science-based drugs policy.

  3. Yes the War on drugs should be viewed through a scientific lens and be more considerate of individual privacy. Ideology can be dangerous when coupled with something as universal as drug use. One problem with personal consumption is that drugs are an integral part of all crime, so usage in private may inadvertently harm third parties. Decriminalization is by no means a panacea for America, simply an option to consider.

    Listening to South America has additional benefits. Right now the balance is still skewed towards military operations. President Obama could minimize opposition by emphasizing social and economic initiatives. The same principle can theoretically be applied to the Taliban. Overemphasis on opium farmers negatively impacted society. The new strategy targets drug lords, but without a stable Afghanistan the opium trade is unlikely to end.