Toward Drug Legalization
Photo: D.R. 2002 Maria Botey
A Conversation with Gustavo de Greiff
By Maria Botey Pascual
November 14, 2002
The only path to ending narco-trafficking is drug legalization: that is to say, the regulation of its production and sale. That is the thesis maintained for almost ten years by Gustavo de Greiff, former Attorney General of Colombia and former ambassador of the same country in Mexico, who says that legalization doesn’t have to produce a rise in the consumption of drugs and, in fact, will end the violence, corruption and the progressive breakdown of society caused by narco-trafficking.
According to de Greiff, it is precisely drug prohibition – a policy that gained force in the 1960s and 70s under the government of president Richard Nixon as a response to street violence provoked by competition between crime organizations for consumer markets. What provokes this violence, as well as the commerce, is its illegal nature, producing enormous profits for drug traffickers and corrupt authorities, a business that will be difficult to stop as long as there are consumers.
Currently an investigator with the Colegio de México, the former attorney general of Colombia explained in an interview with the daily Por Esto! that while he did that job he realized the futility of the drug war: “The police arrested the drug traffickers, dismembered cartels, confiscated property, destroyed laboratories, intercepted drug shipments and, in spite of all that, nothing happened in the general panorama of the drug fight, because it kept coming to the consumer markets, among those, the most important, in the United States. The business is so profitable that if you disintegrate one cartel, other narco-traffickers take its place in the market.”
De Greiff used studies produced by the White House Office of Drug Control to demonstrate that although the drug business is gigantic, it doesn’t rise to the $500 billion dollar figure that has been used to justify the anti-drug policy. Rather, American consumers spend $57 billion dollars a year on illicit drugs or on licit drugs used illegally. To produce a kilo of cocaine and transport it to the United States requires an investment of $2,500 dollars. Later, the North American dealer mixes it with other substances such as talcum powder or flour to increase its weight and distributes it in the street at a value of $20,000 to $30,000 dollars. The enormous profits stay mainly in the United States, while a minor part of the $57 billion dollars mentioned goes to Latin American traffickers.
The Harms of Prohibition
Beyond the street violence and the disintegration of the social fabric, narco-trafficking causes an unmeasured enrichment of the traffickers and also the corrupt officials, he stressed. “A prohibited business can not have success without the collaboration by authorities who close their eyes to the transport or sale of the drug in exchange for money or favors, the same in producer countries and consumer countries. The corruption reaches individuals at all levels of authority, from the police, to the Customs officers, intelligence agents, airports, maritime port managers and, of course, the politicians,” he commented, adding that the profits have also been used to buy arms that benefit violent groups active in the countries of this hemisphere.
De Greiff stressed the importance of legalization of the business, transport and sale of drugs so that the business stops being so monstrously obscene, and to convert it into an ordinary business that additionally will produce taxes that can be invested in the good of society. At the same time, he underlined the billions of dollars that are spent annually to repress drug trafficking that will then be able to be dedicated to other goals. And it’s that in the past ten years drug consumption in the United States has remained more or less stable, but in the same time period the government budget to fight drugs has gone from a billion dollars to seventeen-and-a-half billion dollars (or the more than 18 billion requested for the 2003 budget). This demonstrates the war on drugs is not effective at all, he said.
Fear of Legalization
The doctor in law and former Colombian ambassador in Mexico indicated that one of the great difficulties in bringing about legalization is the fear by the population that drugs will be easier to obtain and raise the number of users. However, the fact is that although drugs are prohibited, they are reachable by any individual in any city of this continent who desires them, he remarked. “Drugs are already everywhere, except that because they are prohibited, small consumers that should be treated as patients go to jail – the bad joke is that nobody is rehabilitated in jail – and the quality of the product is worsened by the elements used to adulterate them (to increase their weight and the corresponding profits), causing more damages to the consumer than if they were pure, as medical research has shown on various occasions.”
In this sense, de Greiff used the example of the legalization of alcohol in the United States, which ended the business of the large mafias involved in it, and did not produce a rise in consumption. “The consumption did rise a little while later due to the psychological problems related to World War II,” he said.
To support his thesis, he cited the study conducted in 1994 by the New York Bar Association called, “A Wiser Path: Ending Prohibition,” in which a committee of experts (politicians, economists, sociologists, doctors, chemists), after analyzing the issue of supposed rise in consumption under legalization, came to the conclusion that the regulation of the production and sale of drugs would not increase consumption notably, as long as legalization is accompanied by medical treatment for addicts and intelligent, honest, educational campaigns to discourage drug use. “Not the stupid and tricky campaigns like the ones used today, that say if you smoke marijuana or try cocaine two or three times you will become an addict: the young people learn for themselves it is not the truth, conclude that everything said is a lie, and decide to continue consuming,” de Greiff commented. He also cited the example of tobacco use, that in spite of being more addictive than cocaine or marijuana according to scientists, has been substantially reduced due to informative campaigns and without causing the damages of prohibition “that would bring the formation of illegal tobacco trafficking gangs, violence and corruption.”
The Farse of the Drug War
Another of the obstacles to legalizing drugs are all the individuals involved in the corruption, said de Greiff. “As has been said, all the agencies involved in repression and monitoring, as well as the politicians: Some because their jobs would be eliminated, and others because they would stop receiving the benefits of narco-trafficking through bribes. Their business would end.”
He cited examples that have been publicly exposed of police who seize drugs but only declare half the volume and sell the rest, cases in which large shipments are seized in order to free up other routes through which larger quantities are passing, DEA agents who target some money-launderers while they protect others who practice the same activity, or politicians scandalized by their own drug consumption in private but who promise to combat narco-trafficking in public, while they receive the profits from the corruption and they are also using drugs.
De Greiff mentioned, at the same time, the political game that is played with the numbers of arrests and seizures, that the governments use to publicize their own success in the drug war and to continue justifying the repressive policy, “when, in reality, there is no such success although they imprison more and more drug dealers, since the drugs continue flowing in the same quantities to the consumer markets.”
The government most interested and invested in the policy of the drug war and at the same time is its grand promoter, he said, is the United States government, which has used the policy to subjugate the countries of Latin America. On one end they use the “de-certification” process. De Greiff notes: “They’ve used this on multiple occasions as a threat when U.S. conditions that have nothing to do with the drug war are imposed, as was the case in 1995 when the U.S. Ambassador in Colombia conditioned that country’s certification on changes in a banana export agreement with Europe.” On the other end they use political and military intervention, more and more, to try and maintain domination and protect the warehouse of cheap natural resources for the United States.
Politics, the Media, and Legalization
Remembering that on various occasions politicians throughout the continent have announced their support for legalization (including Mexican President Vicente Fox who once publicly expressed the need that, one day, drugs be legalized), the former Attorney General of Colombia commented that the majority of Latin American politicians are convinced that the drug war is a farce or at very least ineffective: “I speak with many politicians. And many tell me that I am right, that it is the only solution, but they don’t dare say so publicly because they will then be accused of connections with narco-trafficking, like what happened to me.”
Asked about the possibility that the politicians will decide to speak out and promote what they see as necessary – legalization – de Greiff said that, “what is needed is courage, and, disgracefully, there are few brave politicians in the world. But if there were, and above all if various Latin American countries would unite against this farce, without fear of the economic sanctions by the United States, a new day would dawn.”
Completing his suggestion, he said that one way to pressure the politicians would be to demonstrate the failure of the repressive drug policies to the public: “Then the politician will be afraid to be associated with a failed policy. At least the honest or pragmatic politician would feel that way. As for the dishonest politician, we have to take away his business, and that would be made possible by legalization.”
Another problem that the legalization proposal encounters, he continued, is found in the grand disinformation campaigns promoted, above all, by the most interested party: the United States government, a game in which journalists are paid (with money or with information) to affirm again and again that the only solution to the problem of narco-trafficking is repression and that, if legalized, drug consumption would rise. “That’s how it’s understood, including in Colombia, with all the evils that the production and sale of drugs have cost, a recent poll says that only 36 percent of the population is in favor of legalization, and that’s because they are afraid of expanding the drug problem,” he said.
For that reason, he insisted, it is necessary to continue educating the population, showing the people the lies that are said about the drug war, demonstrating that it is not certain that, in spite of the continuing arrests and seizures, the narco-trafficking is not being stopped; showing them that the corruption continues growing and it’s not the case that repression is beneficial. The supply is available to anyone in spite of prohibition. Teaching people to avoid consumption, and these other points, are necessary topics of information campaigns so that the people are careful about drugs, while the addict should be offered the chance to enter a health clinic and not prison. It’s already been demonstrated that treatment can succeed, he said.
Decriminalization and the Benefits of Legalization
Gustavo de Greiff said that in spite of the obstacles in the path toward legalization – “it may be that I don’t live to see it because I’m already many years old (he was born in 1929), but I know that some day drugs will be legalized and it will be shown that we were right” – there are helpful signs in the world such as the experience of decriminalization in Holland, England, recently in Portugal, and the decriminalization of marijuana in some of the 50 United States, with more voices throughout the planet who clamor now for a change in strategy in relation to drugs.
However, he stressed that decriminalization is not enough: It would only avoid that the consumers go to jail or that the dealers have a more peaceful consumer, but it will not end narco-trafficking nor the current corruption by authorities who enrich themselves at alarming levels while those who suffer are the consumers and the general population.
The solution of the problem of drug trafficking is legalization of drugs, he repeated, and he specified that legalization doesn’t have to mean sale in open markets but, rather, the regulation of the business, the production, the transport and sale, with permits for each activity, control over the quality of the product so it is not adulterated, and legal limits such as not selling drug near educational institutions, not advertising their sale in the media, etc., and always accompanied by prevention campaigns against abusive consumption and offering medical treatment to addicts.
De Greiff concluded that this is the way to destroy the business of the narco-traffickers, to end the corruption and the criminal violence that this illicit activity brings, to stop drug money from being used to buy weapons, and to stop the United States from using drug policies to maintain a subjugated Latin America. He added, ironically, “Of course, beyond direct economic pressures, currently the government in Washington counts with new excuses to do that.”
Publisher’s Note: Former Attorney General and Ambassador Gustavo de Greiff will be one of the featured speakers at the historic, first-ever, América wide drug legalization summit, titled “OUT FROM THE SHADOWS: Ending Drug Prohibition in the 21st Century,” February 12-15, 2003, in Mérida, Yucatán. To register to attend this important gathering, or for more information, see:
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