Thursday, June 2, 2011

Drug Legalization: No Longer Reefer Madness?

Headed for a legal market?

Another report by prominent figures is calling into question the dominant policy in the War on Drugs.

Lots of think tanks, including the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, have questioned the drug war, which has brought us lots of expense, violence and ruined lives but seems to have done little to reduce either drug use or the human damage addiction causes.

The latest and most prominent such group is the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which just issued a report calling for decriminalization of marijuana, at least. This think tank seems to take the issue to a new level, however, because it includes, in addition to several former Latin American heads of state, leaders of the industrialized world, including former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, former United Nations head Kofi Annan, former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and others.

Did all these people suddenly recognize the advantages of drug decriminalization after leaving office? Not likely. But while still in office the dominant prohibitionist thinking prevented them from speaking out at peril of losing their jobs. Now, out of office, they've gotten brave.

The new report, available here, begins unambiguously: 'The global war on drugs has failed with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.'

When I read stuff like this, I think about people like a pretty young woman whom I interviewed in a prison in Paraguay. She was from a dirt poor family and had grown up sleeping with ten others on the floor of a single room. Without education, the only possibilities she saw for helping her family were drug smuggling or prostitution. She chose the former and made just a few trips carrying packs of marijuana into Brazil before she was caught. When I met her she was in her early 20s and serving a prison sentence of about 15 years. After several years in prison, her family had not even visited her, because they couldn't afford to. The young woman's life was ruined, at great expense to society - and for what benefit? The marijuana smuggling operation continued, using other expendable 'mules.'

Cocaine on the brain: Normal and cocaine damaged brains. 
I also remember Silky, a young man whom I rented a room from in a slum neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida. He'd just gotten out of jail after doing time on drug charges and was looking forward to the release of his girlfriend, also doing time on drug charges. Both Silky and I worked minimum wage construction and cleaning jobs, but Silky often worked 16-hour days, so eager was he to prepare things for his girlfriend. He bought a couch, refrigerator, a television. I felt good, because the rent I was paying was helping Silky and his girlfriend put their lives back together.

But one day I came home and discovered that a piece of furniture had disappeared. Then another did. Then Silky started begging me to pay him the rent in advance. Then he started prostituting himself to a gay neighbor.

Silky had gotten back on either cocaine or crack and he was falling back into the rathole. Frightened, I moved out of there.

Would decriminalizing drugs mean fewer ruined lives like that of the young Parguayan woman? Certainly. Perhaps she would have had a formal, tax-paying job transporting marijuana bundles for the Paraguayan pot equivalent of Philip Morris. Would it mean more trapped addicts like Silky? Perhaps, but experience doesn't seem to have shown that. Since Portugal decirminalized drugs a decade ago and replaced prison with treatment, recreational use has risen but addiction has dropped. Perhaps if cocaine were legal, Silky might have been more inclined to get addiction treatment. He certainly wanted to get off of the stuff.

Decriminalization may not be the solution. But with a policy that's patently failed, anything else is worth trying.

Unfortunately, society isn't ready to try alternative drug policies, in part because of the War on Terror, which continues overshadowing all else and has hardened governments' positions into a 'no compromise with the bad guys.' Tragically, however, current prohibitionist drug policies are channeling fortunes into the hands of terrorist groups including Colombia's FARC and paramilitaries and Afghanistan's Taliban. As long as drugs are outlawed, outlaws will be the ones profiting from the drug economy.

Colombian Pres. Juan Manuel Santos, no leftist ideologue, has suggested that Colombia might consider decriminalizing some drugs - if other countries were to do so first. If a nation like Colombia were to do so on its own, it'd become an international pariah, labeled a narco-state. (In contrast, it seems to me, when a wealthy nation takes such a step, it's seen as a rational social experiment.)

El Tiempo opines that decriminalization has little chance anytime soon.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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