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José Fernando López Headshot

Eppur si muove (and yet it moves)

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The second decade of the 21st century will go down in history as an era in which the world got fed up of one of the most useless and prolonged wars: the war on drugs. Or, at least, of the indiscriminate war on all types of drugs and in particular against its consumers.

During the last few days, three things have happened that allow us to be optimist in that sense: The Summit of the Americas held in Cartagena; the publishing of the 2012 National Drug Control Strategy report in the US; and the statements made by General Oscar Naranjo, director of Colombia's National Police, after announcing his retirement from active duty.

Obscured by the media frenzy over the affair of the secret service agents and the Cartagena prostitutes (a good illustration of Literature Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa's new book titled "La Civilización del Espectáculo - The Show's Civilization-)", the drug debate that took place at the Summit of the Americas was an unprecedented event in a meeting of active presidents.

Although there was no formal declaration, mainly caused by differences of opinion in the Cuba issue and because of the support request pleaded by Argentina over the sovereignty of the Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands), the mere fact that the need to re-strategize the war on drugs was even debated by the leaders of all the continent -- including the President of United States -- and the fact that the Organization of American States (OAS) has received orders to study the topic is a gigantic leap that would have been difficult to imagine even a few months ago.

In public, as expected in an election year in which the right of the US has basically imposed its agenda, President Barack Obama disagreed with any kind of legalization of drugs and revalidated the antidrug policy followed by this country. But he openly accepted the country's part in the problem, considering it is the world's greatest consumer of illegal drugs.

But, beyond the words spoken by the president in front of a big crowd -- in a continent that is tired of counting the thousands of dead that the war on drugs has produced -- the real position of the US in this issue lies within its national strategy for drug control. And the document with the directives for 2012, published a few days ago, is very illustrative of that fact.

Although it is not as some analysts have emphasized, a radical change of direction in the anti-drug policy of the US administration, it is a substantial advance in recognizing that drug addiction is more a public health issue than one of criminal policy, as some critics of the war on drugs, led by former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, have stated.

An article published originally in the White House Blog titled "A Drug Policy for the 21st Century" stated: "our emphasis on addressing the drug problem through a public health approach is grounded in decades of research and scientific study. There is overwhelming evidence that drug prevention and treatment programs achieve meaningful results with significant long-term cost savings."

Though it is not as was stated by the Spain newspaper El Pais in one article concerning the issue, "the end of the so called War on Drugs initiated by Nixon in 1971," it is also not "The Same Old Same Old," as stated in an article in the StoptheDrugWar.org blog written a few days after the publication of the governments document.

Though the resources designated in the national budget for drug repression are still greater than those designated for the prevention of use and treatment of addiction, there is a clear intention of breaking the cycle of drug use, crime, delinquency and incarceration that has close to half a million Americans in prison and that rather than solving the problem, is making it worse.

In actuality, it is in the breaking of this cycle where the beginnings of a solution can be found. According to the government's document, "the U.S. prison and jail population has reached unacceptable levels. The number of individuals on probation and parole has more than doubled since 1986; over the same period, annual state corrections spending increased from $8 billion to more than $50 billion to keep pace." And close to one fourth of these people and those resources correspond to drug use related crimes, including a good number of marijuana users. And one can begin the conversation with marijuana.

In an interview published last Sunday in the El Tiempo newspaper of Bogota, Oscar Naranjo, the director of the National Police of Colombia -- the most admired person in his country, with a 36-year career in the institution during which he excelled because of his fierce combat towards the drug cartels -- stated that his country should "allow the controlled use of marijuana," a substance that according to him, "is less harmful, lethal and addictive than other products."

When asked his opinion on what would happen if the measure were approved, Naranjo said: "We would stop criminalizing the consumer, for he is twice a victim. On the one hand the use per se and on the other because it's given a penal treatment. Better still, we could free national resources to be able to concentrate everything towards the persecution of [criminal] organizations and not consumers".

Naranjo, as the majority of the critics of the war on drugs -- contrary to what is normally said -- is not in favor of open and indiscriminate legislation on all drugs. But he is aware that the current model is not working. Now that he has announced his retirement from the police force, he can speak openly. And only few people can speak with that kind of authority.