Yesterday, the sixth edition of MUNUSAL kicked off. One of the things that make this conference stand out is the simulation of the Ibero-American Summit (IAS), with Spanish speaking delegates and translators in the room, who will address decriminalizing drug use this year. Taking into account that the IAS is only a yearly assembly of all heads state of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations of Europe and the Americas, the opportunity to tackle this painful issue should not be wasted.
The official agenda item is aptly named “The decriminalization of certain amounts of drugs for personal consumption as a possible reduction of drug trafficking and arms trade.” No surprises there, the illegal drug trade is one of the biggest problems faced by many Latin American nations in the past decades. Despite the ‘war on drugs’, too many are still corrupted, bribed, kidnapped, addicted or killed.
However, recent policy turns in many Ibero-American States show perspectives for new solutions that could render the IAS a relevant international institution and help thousands of ordinary Latin-Americans to better livelihoods.
The negative externalities of the illegal drug trade
One of the major causes for the intensity of drug production, use and trade in Latin-America is the huge demand on the nearby US market. Criminal organizations, rebels and desperate souls choose the path of drugs for its high profits and thrills. With production situated in the vast and uncontrollable Andes and Amazon regions, drug routes flow down a trail of cities towards the Ocean or the American border. Almost 80% of cocaine and 90% of marijuana entering the United States come from Latin America. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated the size of the world’s drug market at over $300 billion, which is almost a tenth of global trade. On the aspect of drug consumption a recent study estimated the number of crack addicts in Brazil’s at over 1 million, the world’s largest.
Illegal drug trade and usage leave a trail of blood and broken lives behind, as the cases of Mexico and Guatemala tragically illustrate in our news bulletins. By sending a large number of drug offenders to prison, the war on drugs has increased incarceration to a level neither sustainable nor effective.
If drugs were to be legalized or decriminalized the negative externalities could be drastically reduced: for example a decrease in drug-casualty rates, violence, widespread corruption and health and an increase in political stability and democracy.
The US’s view – TINA
Ever since the exponential rise of drug use in the US, Washington has reacted in a ruthless fashion – both at home and abroad. Nixon began the ‘war on drugs’ in the seventies, and many presidents followed his example ever since, including today’s president Barack Obama. The federal budget for fighting drugs equals $15 billion a year and over the last forty years, 37 million nonviolent drug offenders have been incarcerated. All this ignores the fact that regulation and taxes on legalized drugs use could generate billions of revenue; money that could be spent on drug-prevention and aid for Latin-American nations to tackle the issue.
Abroad the United States’ hard-handed approach reaches it anti-climax right across the border, in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. The military got involved with the help of US funds and the city spiralled into chaos. Drug cartels like Los Zetas, La Familia, Sinaloa and Gulf are terrorizing the streets. With over 3000 murders a year, Ciudad Juarez holds the sad record of the world’s most dangerous city.
Despite all this, the Obama administration vows to continue the controversial war on drugs. Washington’s hard-line position on drugs is unlikely to change anytime soon. The frustration with this stubbornness spreads further than the Latin-American world. Washington could well face a public backlash in the years to come, today already over a dozen states have nullified federal marijuana laws by legalizing the plant for medical use.
Policy change in Latin-America and the world
The ‘war on drugs’, i.e. the policy of focusing all government energy on neutralizing the supply-side, has proven economically inefficient and ineffective in general. Since the problems keep getting worse, Latin-America is eager to find new ways.
Both former and current heads of state demand that all options to solve the problem has to be considered. Any alternative to reduce prohibition-related crime, violence and corruption is very much welcome. Consequentially, advocacy for drug legalization has drastically increaced in Latin America.
In March 2012, the Central American nations held a drug legalization summit in Antigua, Guatemala. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina suggested that production, consumption, and sales of narcotics should be regulated and legalized. Several other Latin American countries agreed that legalization and decriminalization approaches should be undertaken in an effort to reduce drug violence.
Despite Mexico being the largest recipient of ‘war on drugs’ US tax dollars, its congress approved changes in the General Health Law that decriminalized the possession of illegal drugs for personal use. Alhtough the law is criticised for being too stringent, it is a pioneering effort that will shape policy for years to come.
The cultivation, use and trade of drugs is in has occurred since civilization’s dawn, controlling it through decriminalization and precautionary rather than repressive policy is the only way forward. As the US political influence and the legitimacy of its ‘war on drugs’-policy wanes, the “Summit of the Americas” could assert itself – for the first time in its existence – against the big brother up north. Latin-American governments should establish a long-term and supra-national strategy to address the essentially transnational drugs issue. This week’s debate at MUNUSAL’s IAS could well be a first step in the right direction .