On November 6, as Americans voted President Obama into office for a second term, voters in Washington and Colorado also voted to legalize marijuana, signaling that Americans are slowly opening up to the idea of alternative drug policy. It will take however, a much broader mind-set from the public, more openness from policy-makers, along with increased foreign pressures for effective change to take place.
The U.S. is a major player on both sides of the 41-year-old "war on drugs" -- not only by way of designing and enforcing the prohibitionist blueprint to fight the war, but because it remains the largest consumer of illicit drugs in the world. Americans today spend approximately $150 billion in drugs each year with problem users occupying the largest share of the market.
According to the Inter-American Dialogue, the U.S. has consistently spent on demand reduction only about two thirds of what it spends on reducing production and trafficking -- even though many argue that focusing greater resources on treatment and prevention is a more effective strategy. Studies show federal funding for prevention programs has consistently decreased in the U.S.
As we continue to resist new solutions and employ less-than-efficient tactics, the war on drugs has generated a number of "unintended consequences" -- significantly affecting producer countries -- which undermine security, development, governance, health and human rights. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, these include:
(1) the creation of criminal black markets, which employ violence and terrorism to control and enforce their trade;
(2) the allocation of resources away from health and treatment and into enforcement;
(3) the geographical displacement or "balloon effect" of production into new regions;
(4) the emergence of new harmful substances following the suppression of existing drugs;
(5) the marginalization and stigmatization of drug users, treated by the systems in place as criminals rather than addicts -- men and women at odds with the system who often find social reinsertion an impossible task.
Not included are other region-specific consequences; such as the health and environmental effects of areal fumigations of coca-crops in Colombia. The practice -- implemented under the U.S.-backed Plan Colombia to fight drug supply and violence -- is the only one of its kind today since Colombia is the only country in the world that allows it.
From enforcing mandatory minimum sentences at home to spraying herbicides abroad, U.S.-sponsored drug policies are under intense scrutiny for their high social, financial, and human costs; with many analysts pointing to decriminalization, legalization or regulation of drug markets around the world, particularly in consumer countries, as potential solutions to the ills surrounding the War on Drugs.
Dr. Daniel Mejía, economist at the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia and author of Políticas Antidroga en Colombia: Exitos, Fracasos y Extravíos says legalization would decrease the price and size of drug markets and ultimately remove the incentive for criminal organizations "... if the markets associated with [drug] production, traffic, etc. go down, who will want to run the risks of transporting drugs? No one, because the profit margins will go down."
He stresses however that legalization, decriminalization and other alternative policies are not to be implemented in isolation, but rather come hand in hand with programs aimed at reducing demand in consumer countries, especially among drug addicts and problematic users in order to prevent a drug epidemic. This, Dr. Mejía claims was the difference between Oregon, where marijuana legalization did not pass, and Colorado and Washington -- claiming the Oregon proposal lacked the proper policy framework to prevent an epidemic.
"The legalization movement comes from the fact that the War on Drugs is costing much more than the damages of a potential legalization or decriminalization." Costs that under a prohibitionist model, Dr. Mejía and other advocates argue, are transferred from consumer countries like the U.S. to producer and transit countries like Colombia and Mexico:
Under a complete legalization, who would bear the cost of the 'drug problem'? Consumer countries, through their health system and the policies they would have to implement to reduce consumption ... With prohibition, basically they push producer and transit countries to impose supply-reduction efforts to make the price of drugs higher and the availability of drugs in consumer countries lower... who pays the price? Producer and transit countries who see their homicide rates go up ...
Furthermore, despite the tremendous resources spent in past decades, efforts simply haven't worked when you look at the large picture, says Dr. Bruce Bagley, University of Miami chair and professor and author of Drug Trafficking in The Americas. Dr. Bagley describes how every "partial victory" of the war on drugs, whether claimed by the U.S. or other governments in the region, has resulted in the emergence of both production and drug-related crime elsewhere -- the aforementioned balloon effect of production and what he calls the cockroach effect of organized crime.
"(Mine) is an argument about a whack-a-mole strategy that rather than suppressing the drug trade: it simply spreads it around, makes it more difficult to contain and contaminates one country after another. Once contaminated, it's very difficult to recover."
This is why leaders throughout Latin America are increasingly demanding alternative solutions. Spearheading the cause for alternative drug policy, though not embracing legalization, is former Colombian President César Gaviria, whose administration (1990-1994) saw the bloodiest of times under the final reigning days of Pablo Escobar's Medellin Cartel. Joininghim are former president of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, and Enrique Cardozo of Brazil.
Sitting presidents across the region have also made their voices heard.
In 2011, Bolivian President Evo Morales broke away from the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which bans coca leaves,and has since legalized the limited production of coca for traditional uses.
Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina, seeing security crippled in his country by the emergence and empowerment of blood-thirsty gangs serving the Mexican cartels, has called out for international legalization of drugs.
And perhaps one of the most audacious approaches to the drug war comes from Uruguay's Jose Mujica, a former leftist guerrilla, who has proposed legislation this year to create a government monopoly on marijuana in his country.
Despite having embraced a change in tone, and switching the term "war on drugs" to more a health-focused approach, President Obama put his foot down on legalization at the federal level during this year's OAS Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia: "I personally, and my administration's position is that legalization is not the answer ... [legalization] could be just as corrupting if not more corrupting than the status quo."
Still, this was before the election and before the Washington and Colorado votes, which seem to have rubbed salt on some regional wounds. During his last days in office as Mexico's president -- with a tally of over 60,000 violent deaths under his militarized approach to the war on drugs -- Felipe Calderón denounced the U.S. as lacking the "moral authority" to demand that other nations fight trafficking of substances that are becoming legal in some U.S. states.
His successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, said in a meeting with President Obama that he opposes legalization but called for a "debate where countries in the hemisphere, and especially the U.S. should participate in this broad debate to redefine the way in which we fight drug trafficking."
With all due pressures in place from abroad, it's up to us at home to demand policy reform. While there's no denying the personal and social harms of illicit drug consumption and the fact that people will continue to use and abuse them, it's time to dissolve taboos, to look beyond our borders and into our systems. It's time to do away with ideology and employ evidence-based strategies.
It's time to carry our own burden, treat our own ills, and fight our own war.