Feb 12, 2009

Report Calls for End to Drug War, As Obama Moves Toward Reform

The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy issued a report that marks a turning point in drug policy in the hemisphere. Following a year’s work, the report concludes that the “war on drugs” is a failed war and recommends a “paradigm shift” centered on public health, reducing consumption and focusing resources on organized crime.

The report was drawn up by a prestigious 17-member commission, chaired by former presidents Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Fernando Enrique Cardoso of Brazil.

It's well worth it to read the full statement of the commission, "Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift." Here's a brief run-down.

The report begins with a flat-out denouncement of the war on drugs emphasis on criminal enforcement measures.

Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results. We are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs.”

At the teleconference held on Feb. 11, members of the commission criticized the "prohibitionist policies" of the past and urged formation of a Latin American policy based on harm reduction focus and collaboration with the United States and European consumer countries to reduce demand. The report lists three specific actions under the new paradigm: treat addicts as patients in the public health system, evaluate decriminalization of cannabis possession for personal use, and reduce consumption through public education campaigns primarily directed at youth.

The section on the expensive, bloody and largely ineffective U.S.-sponsored drug wars in the Americas is particularly damning:

Colombia, recipient of over $6 billion in U.S. drug war funds, illustrates drug policy failure:

"Colombia is a clear example of the shortcomings of the repressive policies promoted at the global level by the United States. For decades, Colombia implemented all conceivable measures to fight the drug trade in a massive effort whose benefits were not proportional to the vast amount of resources invested and the human costs involved. Despite the country’s significant achievements in fighting the drug cartels and lowering the levels of violence and crime, the areas of illegal cultivation are again expanding as well as the flow of drugs coming out of Colombia and the region."

Mexico, which has just begun to receive drug war training and equipment from the U.S. government under the Merida Initiative, is seen as a chance to change course before it's too late:

"Mexico has quickly become the other epicenter of the violent activities carried out by the criminal groups associated with the narcotics trade. This raises challenges for the Mexican government in its struggle against the drug cartels that have supplanted the Colombian traffickers as the main suppliers of illicit drugs to the United States market. Mexico is thus well positioned to ask the government and institutions of American society to engage in a dialogue about the policies currently pursued by the US as well as to call upon the countries of the European Union to undertake a greater effort aimed at reducing domestic drug consumption. The traumatic Colombian experience is a useful reference for countries not to make the mistake of adopting the US prohibitionist policies and to move forward in the search for innovative alternatives."

Although it stops short of mentioning the Merida Initiative and Plan Colombia by name, the report makes it clear that given the poor results, military/police programs like these that stress enforcement and interdiction should be seriously reevaluated and reoriented. The commission criticizes the high costs in violence, and corruption among police forces and politicians within countries employing the war and drugs strategy.

Referring to another aspect of the drug wars that has sparked controversy in Latin America, the report says this about efforts to eradicate cultivation of illicit drugs:

"It is important to speak not only of alternative cultivation but to envision a wide range of options, including the social development of alternative forms of work, democratic education and the search for solutions in a participatory context. Such initiatives must also take into account the legal uses of plants, such as the coca leaf, in countries with a long-standing tradition of ancestral use previous to the phenomenon of their exploitation as an input for drug production. Accordingly measures must be taken to strictly adjust production to this kind of ancestral use."

The mere recognition of the legitimacy of ancestral use is a step forward. This time, the implicit reference is to the Bolivian government where President Evo Morales’ “Coca sí, Cocaina no policies collided with US DEA politicized eradication efforts, to the point where the DEA was barred from operating in the country. Here too the report opens up long-overdue debate on policies whose collateral damage to society and the environment cannot be justified by their poor results.

The goal of the commission report is to build a united Latin American platform on drug policy. When asked if they thought they could accomplish that by the time the Vienna conference is slated to reach an agreement on a new 10-year UN policy, Commission members noted that only the Colombian government has explicitly balked at the proposed paradigm shift.

But it also targets its message to the U.S. government, which in the past has tried to impose the drug war model on its Latin American allies:

"[The U.S.] policy of massive incarceration of drug users, questionable both in terms of respect for human rights and its efficiency, is hardly applicable to Latin America, given the penal system’s overpopulation and material conditions. This repressive policy also facilitates consumer extortion and police corruption. The United States allocates a much larger proportion of resources to eradication and interdiction as well as to maintaining its legal and penal system than to investments in health, prevention, treatment and the rehabilitation of drug users."

The Commission’s message coming at this time reflects the hope that the Obama administration will have a more open attitude toward re-evaluating the failed policies.

That hope is not unfounded. The Obama administration had a few false starts on the issue, reflecting more the built-in inertia of Washington than its own policies. Earlier this month, the U.S. delegation reportedly blocked harm reduction measures at talks toward a new UN strategy in Vienna. Then, a series of DEA raids on medical marijuana providers in California raised questions about Obama’s commitment to respect state laws on the matter.

Those fears have been somewhat allayed over the past two days. On the international front, Obama broke publicly from the “zero-tolerance” line of the Bush administration and announced support for needle exchange, although she still called “harm reduction” an “ambiguous term”.

At home, Obama received criticism for the contradiction between campaign promises and a reality that looked a lot like no change regarding federal government repression of medical marijuana. White House spokesperson Nick Shapiro stated that the medical marijuana raids would not continue:

“The president believes that federal resources should not be used to circumvent state laws, and as he continues to appoint senior leadership to fill out the ranks of the federal government, he expects them to review their policies with that in mind."

Now the Seattle press is speculating that Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, will be appointed national drug czar. This would be another important sign a changing tide. Kerlikowske worked in law enforcement in Washington state, a state that permits medical marijuana use and in Seattle, a city that approved a measure to give marijuana "lowest enforcement priority". Drug policy reform groups have celebrated his probable nomination.