Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Samper on Drugs

Ernesto Samper
Colombian ex-President Ernesto Samper knows a little bit about illegal drugs. He governed Colombia from 1994-98, during some of the most vicious years of cocaine-financed violence. And Samper allegedly received money from the Cali drug cartel for his '94 presidential campaign.

Now, in this El Tiempo column, Samper has come out in favor of decriminalizing and regulating illegal drugs. Samper makes many of the common arguments: the War on Drugs has failed and doing more harm than good. But he makes this particularly trenchant statement:

"The existing anti-drug policy has achieved that world opinion no longer considers drugs to be good or bad because they are damaging, but because they are prohibited."

In other words, it's a closed circle: People believe drugs are bad not based on any harm they cause but simply for the very fact that they are banned.

Cesar Gaviria
This makes Samper at least the second Colombian ex-president to speak out in favor of drug decriminaliztion. His predecessor, Cesar Gaviria, who governed from 1990 to '94, has also called prohibitionism a failure and for a new drug policy.

But it's Samper's own experience - which shook the nation the way Watergate shook the United States - which provides the strongest condemnation of prohibitionism. Samper evidently had lots of good intentions, some of which he accomplished, to expand health care, help victims of Colombia's conflict and even combat narcotrafficking.

Samper, like most politicians, undoubtedly received campaign support from many sources, most of them legal and some of them arguably as destructive as narcotrafficking, such as the petroleum and tobacco industries.

But, because the illegal drug industry is precisely illegal, when a politician is exposed receiving drug money, scandal ensues. Similarly, across the globe, illegal drug money corrupts public officials ranging from local cops up to senators and presidents. Some small, poor nations in Central America, the Carribean and Africa have been converted into so-called narco-states mostly because they have the bad luck of being located along cocaine trafficking routes to United States and European buyers.

After leaving office, Samper left Colombia, returning only in the year 2000. Since then, he's coordinated the Foro de Biarritz, a Latin American-European economic coordinating group, and headed the Corporacion Escenarios, a policy think-tank. An in-depth analysis of drug policy is available on the Foro's website.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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