Feb 16, 2012

Drug Policy Debate: Pay attention to the clamor to legalize drugs, Drug Policy Allliance head, Ethan Nadelmann, suggests to presidential candidates

An in-depth interview by the Mexican newspaper, La Jornada, with Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance. He was a speaker at the international forum, Drugs: An Assessment of a Century of Prohibition, held in Mexico City this week. 

La Jornada: "For Mexico to move towards a model of decriminalization of drugs and be able to reverse the punitive policy that led to the current confrontation that takes dozens of lives every day, it is necessary that progressive governors and mayors, who have autonomy from the central government, open the debate and agree to explore possibilities, says Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization considered in the United States to be spearheading the search for alternative models to address the problems of drug trafficking and addiction.

The New York political scientist, who moved from academia (Princeton) to activism against prohibitionist policies in the past two decades, does not believe it is impossible that the three leading candidates in the upcoming presidential elections in Mexico may pay attention to the voices of civil society, which are gradually beginning to demand the legalization of marijuana.

Against all evidence, since neither Enrique Peña Nieto, Josefina Vazquez Mota nor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador have spoken on the subject, Nadelmann prefers to be positive: "They will have to do it. They will have to listen." But so far "decriminalization does not appear in any of the electoral campaigns," he noted.

"This can change. The fact that the last two presidents (Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox) have argued for the legalization of drugs has meant that Felipe Calderon, in his last visit to America, began to speak, although mildly, of market alternatives. That was the euphemism he used to refer to decriminalization. He chose those words; no one before had ever said so, but it is significant."

Question: On what will this (change) depend?

"Much depends on how Mexican society thinks and expresses itself. There is an evolution going on for several reasons: the unsustainable levels of violence, the awareness and debate that the movement of Javier Sicilia has aroused, and there are business groups that are getting involved. I suppose that the politicians, with the elections, will have to address this transition in the state of mind of the people. Perhaps the candidates understand that a progressive position in this area is going to add, not subtract, votes."

Question: This isn't going to please the White House ...

"Maybe so. But, you know, people say some things in public and others private. I was not surprised that all three candidates agree regarding the policies of decriminalization." ...

Question: So far the current (Mexican) administration isn't moving in the direction of decriminalization. You, yourself heard that (in the conference speeches of Margarita Zavala, wife of President Felipe Calderon and the Secretary of the Interior, Alejandro Poire.)"

"When there is crisis, there is change. Twenty-five, thirty years ago, if you had told me that in the next 10 or 30 years a dozen governments would have programs for addicts to exchange used needles for clean needles to enable them to inject themselves without risk of infection, I would have said that you were crazy. Today it is a reality. If you had told me 10 years ago that we would see these types of programs in Indonesia, Thailand, China, Vietnam and Iran, I would have said the same. But they are there.

"If seven, six years ago you would have told me that in 2011 there would be more Americans in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana than those who are against it, I would have thought, 'impossible.' But these changes are occurring in a very rapid transition. Why? Because reality imposes itself.

"And if Mexico moves toward this change, the legalization of drugs, the positive effects will soon be seen. Lives will be saved, people will have available scientific evidence regarding the nature of the problem and also it will allow Mexicans to save a lot of money. Because it is very expensive to sustain a war like this."

Question: In the U.S. the pressure of civil society regarding these issues was crucial. Here they are recognized as being in the vanguard in this process. Do you see this as possible in Mexico?

"In the history of decriminalization it is a proven fact that many of the reforms began in local focal points in certain cities, in certain states with high rates of overdose deaths or street violence. In Europe, 20 years ago the mayors began to press against prohibition. It evolved little by little, but eventually it spread to other cities first, and then to the federal level.

"In the United States we started with the law to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana in California in 1996. Then it spread to 16 states. Today there are more dispensaries for the therapeutic use of marijuana in California and Colorado than cafes in the Netherlands. Then came Barack Obama, who--at least in his first year and a half in government-- made contributions and instructed the Department of Justice to make the necessary adjustments. What happened is that the reforms took place very rapidly and a brake came. The White House suffered pressure from prohibitionists and reversed its course. Today local laws and local institutions for therapeutic marijuana are under attack. What we have to do is push back. That's the dynamic.

"So I say that there is nothing like a crisis to change people. And what is happening in (Ciudad) Juarez, in Nuevo Laredo, elsewhere, it is that kind of crisis that ought to make people start thinking differently. I think, in the end, for Mexico there is no other option. Because people will get tired of this old, worn out war that has shown that it cannot be effective. Many people know this, but they don´t know alternatives. Or they are afraid. That requires political leadership. That's what I hope to see."

Question: Do you consider the idea of ​​legalizing drugs as belonging to the progressive agenda? And prohibition a conservative position?

"It may be a conservative idea, liberal or both at the same time. It is consistent with the conservative tradition in terms of restricting the role of government and respect for market forces. It is also liberal, because of its humanitarian focus. In Europe it was mostly liberal politicians who led the way, but they were backed up by the Conservatives.

"In Latin America, a liberal politician, the ousted president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, made ​​the proposal and no one listened. The former president of Chile (Michelle) Bachelet did the same and it went unnoticed. Now it is the president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, a conservative, who is open to the idea. Also the leaders of El Salvador (Mauricio Funes) and Guatemala (Otto Perez Molina), who are of different types. Rather than being of the left or right, being open to the debate about legalization is a rational idea.  Conservatives or liberals can do it ." Spanish original

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