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Straight Talk on the War on Drugs

By Robert Valencia

OSLO AND NEW YORK: At the Oslo Freedom Forum, Drug Policy Alliance Founder and Director Ethan Nadelmann—America’s go-to expert with regard to the War on Drugs—addressed the human costs of the 40-year-old conflict by pointing out that we are not just facing one problem but two: drug addiction and policies themselves. We sat down one on one with Dr. Nadelmann to get a full scope of what drug regulation and decriminalization entails for the United States and Latin America.

World Policy Journal: There are centrifugal forces in the War on Drugs. Not only do drug dealers profit from illicit trade, but they also find other sources of income such as money laundering, arms trade, and sex trafficking.  How can the government, civil society, and law enforcement tackle these problems as you advocate for drug use decriminalization?

Ethan Nadelmann: On the one hand, all these activities fall under the long tradition of the contrabandista (smuggler) in Latin America. Smuggling across borders goes back for hundreds or thousands of years worldwide. What’s shifted now is not just that there’s trade intensity, because that’s also true of legal trade. The key thing with narco-trafficking is that it provided a source of revenue that is larger and more significant than anything we have had seen before, as well as power. Some people would say if they eliminate the drug market, then they look into other areas to generate revenue, and I think there are two key points:  drug dealers are in fact going to other areas, whether the drug business will flourish or not. Secondly, the number one thing a criminal organization needs in order to move into other economic areas of activity is capital, and illicit drug markets provide that. If that source of revenue is significantly diminished for them, for example, by providing drug addicts the drugs they need or legalizing marijuana, dealers will have less power and revenue. In terms of how government and civil society face these threats and other types of criminality, this is a two-fold approach: on the one hand, the rule of law is paramount in order to build a traditional institution—like the way Colombia has done it—professionalize law enforcement while limiting the influence of potentially corrupting forces.  

WPJ: Let’s talk about an ideal scenario: drugs are treated as a legal commodity, and government regulates the use of cannabis, though it can be legally sold. How would drug dealers be affected since they’re the ones currently controlling the market?

EN: They’ll be essentially out of business. Let’s look at the business of alcohol prohibition and the debate back in the early ‘20s: many people argued that prohibition could never be repealed because Al Capone and the other bootleggers became so powerful that they would never allow it. And today we hear that the narcos would never allow drug regulation because they’re so powerful. But when the public will was there, there’s nothing that the bootleggers could do to stop the repeal of prohibition, and the same is true today. The second argument you hear is that if the drug is treated as a legal commodity then the gangsters then will dominate the market. However, if you look at the repeal of prohibition, you see that the bootleggers tried to control the distribution of alcohol in legal bars, but lost out to new competitors over time. The competitive advantage criminals have is the employment of intimidation and violence, but in a legal market those advantages are not worth very much because skilled marketing and efficiency of production are more important, giving legal companies have the competitive advantage. If marijuana is legalized, the criminal organizations will try their best to stay in business, but legal organizations will eventually push them out-perform them.

WPJ: In 2004, before Barack Obama became president he said, “we need to rethink the way we operate the drug war” and opposed its legislation. And eight years later at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena now President Obama used the same rhetoric, and there was no consensus on drug criminalization in the final declaration. What are your thoughts on that?

EN: I think it’s complicated. Before Obama became president he was relatively progressive in the subject of drug policy, during his first year of office he did very well in three of his specific campaign commitments. He approved when Congress allowed federal funding for needle exchange programs to reduce HIV/AIDS, worked hard to change the very harsh mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and issued a memorandum to deprioritize marijuana prosecutions. I was surprised to see his commitment in his first year. Unfortunately, in the 18 months before the Summit of the Americas he has shifted to another direction; the rhetoric lately has been similar to that of his predecessors. In Latin America his policies haven’t changed much, and within the United States the federal government’s action toward medical marijuana has been a disaster in the last couple of years. During the Summit of the Americas, president Santos of Colombia provided leadership on this issue and was joined by leaders from the right and the left expressing their frustration with U.S. policy on this issue. This is why Obama made these historic remarks of drug legalization being a legitimate subject for debate. Then, a week later, the 2012 National Drug Control Strategy report was released and what was noticeable about this was that, despite the substance of the policy remaining the same, the report started to embrace more of the language used by the drug policy reform movement. Key leadership in the Obama administration is recognizing the need for their rhetoric to evolve, but at the same time they’re fearful that this growing debate over drug legalization and other alternatives to prohibition will take off and gain real momentum in the Americas.

WPJ: One of the very few items in which everybody touched common ground during the Summit of the Americas was the creation of an Inter-American system that seeks to share security information that would tackle drug activities. And most recently, the U.S. Army is using military techniques learned during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to fight the cartels while using Honduras as the training camp to carry these military activities. Do you see these scenarios as setbacks in the movement of drug regulation and decriminalization?

EN: Security and drug policy need to proceed in tandem. On the one hand, one needs to build up the rule of law in these countries as best as one can. On the other hand, sophisticated law enforcement operation that can immobilize and arrest and eliminate major criminal organizations is important in any civilized society. I don’t oppose U.S.-Latin America security cooperation so long as it is done in ways that are consistent with respect to human rights and the rule of law. That said, these efforts are mostly doomed to failure unless one is simultaneously trying to transform the way we deal with the drug market. You can remove one criminal organization or mafia after the other, but each organization will be replaced by another as long as there are opportunities for illegal drug markets.  One cannot win against what is essentially a global commodities market.

WPJ: Now we have three U.S. aid packages: Plan Colombia, Plan Merida, and CARSI. You were talking about public education by way of programs, so should governments allocate some of this money for those purposes rather than fully invest in security or military buildup?

EN: I’m not an expert on the restrictions of the use of such funds. I know, however, that Central American governments were upset at the United States because the latter created a Plan Colombia and a Plan Merida while Central America was suffering tremendously from the U.S. inspired war on drugs yet they were not getting any funds.  I think what’s important at this point is that even though the U.S. provided this aid, I hope and I believe that Presidents Chinchilla and Perez Molina and others keep the pressure on this debate. Central American governments will understand that the U.S. economic assistance for security purposes is useful to give them the upper hand in the fight against organized crime, but that over the long term the only solution is a change in national and international drug policy.

WPJ: It is said that population might confuse decriminalization and drug regulation as an appeasement of criminal activities. For example, there was recently a massacre in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, perpetrated by the Zetas, which deepened the population’s mistrust of the effectiveness of law enforcement. How do you avoid the conflation of criminalization of drug users’ and drug dealers’ activities?

EN: The profoundly misinformed view that decriminalization and legalization aids the narco-traffickers needs to be reformed, and in order to effectively change that is through public education. When we see these massacres, it is pivotal that the people responsible be brought to justice. But ultimately, we need to take the market out of their hands, which means teaching people that it’s best to put this commodity in legal hands than in criminal ones.

WPJ: The prison system business seems to be very profitable in the United States. And you claim that discriminatory incarceration of Hispanics and African Americans is due to drug possession. With more people behind bars and more money being poured into prison maintenance, do you think that the prison system may become a hurdle in the struggle for drug regulation?

EN: The most powerful force defending the status quo is clearly the prison industrial complex. For example, CCPOA, the California prison guards union is perhaps the most powerful union in that state and a stark opponent of policy reform. When you read, for example, the annual statements of these private prison corporations, they point out that the greatest threat to future profits is that the drug policy reform movement may gain steam, and that tells you something. That being said, the single most dynamic and problematic driving force for pursuing the war on drugs does not have to dowith money; it’s about power. The most provocative element is the extraordinary power of prosecutors at the federal and state level. For them, it is all about power and they have become a critical force in American society; therefore it’s a major challenge.

WPJ: At the Oslo Freedom Forum, you claimed that we need a new global drug regime grounded in science, compassion, and human rights. How optimistic are you about decriminalization of drugs and how long will it take to have a definitive implementation of drug regulation across the Americas?

EN: I think the solutions are going to lie in three areas. First, end the criminal prohibition of marijuana and legalize the marijuana market, like we’ve seen in the Netherlands and what we see bubbling up in other parts of Europe. Public opinion, particularly the young population, is overwhelmingly supportive of this. Marijuana does not account for the majority of all illegal drug profits, but it counts for a significant share of illegal drug users in the world. The second area would be in the decriminalization of drug possession so that nobody goes to prison except in DUI cases. Decriminalizing drug possession does not increase or decrease the market for drugs, but it does reduce HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis C cases (as it decreases the exchange of used needles), as well as the expenses of taxpayers. Third, allow addicts to obtain their drugs from legal sources. This essentially evolves from a model pioneered in Switzerland 20 years ago that expanded in other European countries. This is going to be the most effective way of significantly reducing the markets for the narcos and I think we’ll be moving in that direction with increasing speed over the next five to fifteen years.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]



Robert Valencia is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and is a contributing writer for Global Voices. He also has a personal blog called My Humble Opinion.

[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

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