<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
 English | Español November 23, 2017 | Issue #31


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Drug Legalization Debate Surges in Latin America

Forum Magazine’s Renato Rovai Assesses the Latin American Reform Movement


By Renato Rovai
Forum magazine, translated by Narco News

August 28, 2003

Publisher’s Note: Veteran journalist Renato Rovai of Sao Paulo is one of the hemisphere’s leading specialists reporting on the war on drugs. A professor of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, he edited our Portuguese language pages during their birth last February, covering the Drug Legalization Summit from Mérida, México. His national magazine, Forum, in Brazil, is considered the leading source on what is happening inside the government and Workers Party (PT, in its Portuguese initials). Thus, among his significant findings in this report, published in Forum and translated by Narco News, are the words that sprang from his interview with Brazilian drug czar, General Paulo Roberto Uchôa – considered a prohibitionist “hawk” on drug policy – who, for the first time in this interview softens his position and opens a door to a new drug policy.

As Rovai documents, Uchôa’s new position has occurred in the context of a growing Latin America-wide movement, from diverse lands that rarely unite, but are increasingly coming together – as described by the words of various protagonists from Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Brazil and elsewhere interviewed for this report – united against a common enemy: the imposed prohibitionist drug policy of the United States government on other nations.

– Al Giordano, publisher


Renato Rovai
Photo D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL; AUGUST 2003: In its issue of July 26, 2001, The Economist, one of the principal voices of the neo-liberal project, published a 16 page report defending drug legalization. Among many arguments, it was stressed that the War on Drugs “absorbs between 35 and 40 billion dollars a year paid by taxpayers of the United States,” and adds, “with all this investment, the price of cocaine is half of what it was in 1980 and heroin costs sixty percent of what it did a decade ago.” The Economist utilized the market’s logic to decree the failure of the “war on drugs” policy sponsored by the United States government.

Before The Economist assumed this position, many other organizations and personalities were already convinced that legalization could bring the only alternative for dismantling the criminal apparatus constructed by narco-trafficking.

On March 7, 1992, Gustavo de Greiff became Colombia’s Attorney General. The great challenge was to dismantle the narco-trafficking cartels. De Greiff did what seemed impossible: He brought Pablo Escobar, among others, to prison. This provoked the fall of the Medellín Cartel and de Greiff became a celebrity.


Gustavo de Greiff
Photo D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
In 1994, at a conference on drug policy in Baltimore, in the United States, he came out in favor of legalization. He then was made into a demon. Accusations immediately appeared that he could be involved in narco-trafficking. Today, de Greiff can’t enter the United States any more. The government took away his visa. The pressure was so great that on August 18, 1994, he left his office in Colombia and went to Mexico to teach college. Among other arguments, the former Colombian prosecutor, now 74, stressed that “prohibition is a waste of energy,” and that it is destroying the public safety forces all over the world due to the incredible power of the corruption of the narco-traffickers. In his opinion, the more the State intervenes in the combat against production, distribution, and use of drugs, the more conditions are created to feed the paramilitary forces financed by the narco-trafficking mafias. The prohibition produces a war that could be avoided altogether, he believes.

The Economist’s cover and de Greiff’s valiant opinion voiced in the United States are just two moments of the debate with respect to a new way to relate to drugs. Last February, while Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, suffered a security crisis, Senator Jefferson Peres also launched light into the national debate. The fact is that throughout the world there are people convinced that something must be urgently changed in the policy of drug war.


Mario Menéndez, publisher of Por Esto!
Photo D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
Last February, we believe for the first time in history, a conference, promoted, among others, by Narconews.com and the daily Por Esto!, of Yucatán (México), brought the whole world to the Mexican city of Mérida to discuss with what forms of action would this debate be brought out of the shadows. There are two visions: from libertarian movements that utilize the argument that the State should not interfere with what a citizen does with his body, to those who only defend marijuana decriminalization and consider it less dangerous than legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco, to those who, like de Greiff, defend legalization by understand that the challenge is to dismantle narco-trafficking and control consumption.

De Greiff believes that each country should create its own regulations, but argues that private companies and laboratories should produce and sell the drugs. And he believes that the governments and private banks should create funds to fix the price and quality of the substances.

Canadá and Argentina

Last May 27th, the Canadian government proposed a decriminalization law to Parliament in Ottawa. If this law is approved, the possession of 15 to 30 grams of marijuana will no longer be a crime and will only be punished by fines of $70 to $250 dollars. If the quantity apprehended exceeds 30 grams, it will be considered a crime, but the higher penalties will be reserved for the producers and businessmen. What makes the Canadian project, in a certain way, a landmark toward a new policy in relation to drugs in América is also the fact that the country is part of the North American Free Trade Agreement and is partner and neighbor of the United States.

It was for good reason that the U.S. Ambassador in Ottawa, Paul Cellucci, reacted with threats: “The approval of this law could seriously affect the bilateral commerce between both countries, of $1.2 billion dollars a day.” According to him, U.S. Customs officials could begin to pay more attention to border crossings, which could considerably reduce the flow of Canadian exports.

The Canadian Justice Minister accused him of an unfair hit. When presenting the bill, he noted that the law cannot be seen as one creating legalization. “I want to make it clear, we are not legalizing marijuana and we have no plans to do so,” said Martin Cauchon. But he added his criticism of the current criminalization policy of the country, that is very similar to that of its all-powerful neighbor: “The current penalties are disproportionate. The legislation that I present today guarantees that the punishment fits the crime.”

Alberto Giordano, journalist from the United States, is one of the major actors on behalf of drug legalization. Publisher of Narconews.com, he has no pity for his country of origin. “The prohibitionist policy is currently imposed by only one nation: the United States, which blackmails all other nations, as it is doing now with Canada.”

Giordano believes that it is in Latin America where the debate over a new drug policy is the most advanced. Among other reasons, in his opinion, it is because the United States has used the issue of narco-trafficking to impose its policing policies in the region. That’s why he sustains that it is fundamental that the Latin American nations join together in favor of legalization and he believes there are indications this could occur in the coming years.

“The debate is very advanced South of the gringo border and also to the North, as Canada moves to decriminalize marijuana. The current presidents of Mexico, Uruguay and Brazil have spoken openly against the prohibitionist policy. Argentina President Nestor Kirchner nominated a prominent anti-prohibitionist judge (Eugenio Zaffaroni) to the Supreme Court. In Bolivia, the government recognizes the coca growers as an important political force. In Colombia, the gringo dreams of Álvaro Uribe have already failed in relation to drug policy. And in Perú, like in Bolivia before, the demonstrations by coca growers have spread into a wider rebellions by many sectors against the Toledo government and his sell-out policies toward Washington,” he analyzes.

Giordano doesn’t tell us, but his discourse points to an analysis of how the U.S. government has special interests in the war on drugs in Latin America. That is to say, this is the policy that guarantees the territorial occupation of large areas of the Andean countries and also interventions in the politics of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. What would be the United States’ justification to, one day, have its Armed Forces acting inside of Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, for example, if drugs were treated as a social problem of public health?

Claudio Serbale, sociology and communication professor in Argentina, says that the discussion about drugs in that country is still far from bringing about something close to legalization, but he notes that on July 1, Congresswoman Irma Parentella presented a bill to legalize medical use of marijuana. “On the other hand, the central government, in a measure to respond to the issue of violence, implemented a telephone number so that anyone can accuse another of selling drugs,” he wrote in an email interview. These contradictions, according to Serbale, include the nomination of Eugenio Zaffaroni to preside over the Supreme Court. “He’s a judge that is unanimously recognized for his honor and formation, and he has declared himself in favor of the decriminalization of consumption,” he added.


Silvia Inchaurraga
Photo D.R. Jermey Bigwood 2003
To smoke marijuana in Argentina is an act that justice calls a crime. A person only needs to be found smoking to be criminally charged. Although there is a drug law (Law #23,773) that calls for judicial intervention in the health field, what dominates are the actions, by the control apparatus of the State – judicial police – that end up criminalizing consumption.

Silvia Inchaurraga, president of the Argentina Harm Reduction Association (ARDA, in its Spanish initials), and executive secretary of the Latin American Harm Reduction Network (RELARD), says that, in Argentina, like in other parts of the world, not just the drugs are Satanized, but, also, the ideas and advocates against prohibition, resulting from a confusion on the part of many who discuss the issue, and, clearly, from a global United States official policy that doesn’t allow space for a wider debate.

“To legalize drugs does not mean legalizing substances. It is to legalize a more rational, effective, and human approach to the problems associated with drugs and their consumption. It is an alternative to the current legalization of lies, such as the ‘gateway’ theory (in which a person who consumes a soft drug supposedly then will consume harder ones). Legalization is an alternative to the damages caused by prohibition: the spread of AIDS through sharing of needles, police violence, the black market, contaminated product, and overdose,” she says.

Inchaurraga admits that full legalization of drugs can’t be the immediate path for countries like Argentina and Brazil. “In those cases, it is possible to advance with the decriminalization of consumption. But at the international level, it is necessary to strengthen in the anti-prohibitionist movement: open or controlled. What that means is that drugs will be thought of as medical products,” she explains.

México and Perú

Peruvian economist and student of narco-trafficking, Hugo Cabieses, says that the current debate with respect to legalization in his country does not exist. “When someone proposes a debate about it, he is satanized or ignored, which is even worse.”


Hugo Cabieses
Photo D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
Cabieses says that this happens as a consequence of pressures by the United States government, but, as individuals, there are cabinet members and high level officials who believe that the best solution to the problem of narco-trafficking is legalization. “But they are afraid to say so publicly,” he says.

In Mexico, the legalization movement is more visible. Congressman Gregorio Urías, of the Democratic Revolution Party, says so: “The war on drugs is a lost war.” He’s from Sinaloa, a state in the northern part of the country in a region that has suffered a large part of the violence and corruption that originates with narco-trafficking.

“Narco-trafficking has increased. It controls more capital and moves a larger volume of drugs, consumption has shot up and the consequences and violence caused by it have grown year after year.” Last year, Urías presented legislation in Congress to begin the process of decriminalizing marijuana use.


Gregorio Urías
Photo D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
He was not the first politician to openly confront the prohibition policy. In 1998, then-Senator María del Carmen Bolado del Real, of the National Action Party (PAN) of the current president Vicente Fox, proposed a bill to legalize and regulate all drugs in Mexico. Even the same Vicente Fox said, in 2001, that decriminalization was inevitable as the global solution.

The daily Por Esto!, of the Yucatán region, the third largest newspaper in the country, has also openly defended legalization.

Ricardo Sala, of the website vivecondrogas.com, says the legalization movement in his country is large: “Ask any taxi driver. He’ll tell you that it would be better to legalize.”

Brazil: Surprise Statement by Drug Czar

Brazil is perhaps the country that walks most quietly toward another kind of policy in relation to drugs and their users. Evidently, the current law still prohibits all commerce as well as consumption, but in sending his first message to Congress, President Lula da Silva underlined, as one of his main points in the theme of Justice, Security, and Citizenship, the need to reduce demand for drugs. It seems like a small detail, but Lula could have instead stressed the war on narco-trafficking and its criminal networks.


Ricardo Sala
Photo D.R. Jeremy Bigwood 2003
General Paulo Roberto Uchôa, National Anti-Drug Secretary for the government, insists that Lula’s statement was not made in vain. He insists that the policy of the SENAD (National Anti-Drug Secretary) was chosen on December 11, 2001, after a wide debate in society, and includes many aspects that are considered to be modern. “It’s a policy that already defines the person dependent on drugs not as a criminal, but, rather, as someone who is ill and needs care. It is a policy that also determines that there will not be discrimination against a person just because he uses drugs. Treatment of the user and addict must be distinct from that of the trafficker, because the trafficker, and not the user, is the criminal. It’s a policy that favors reduction of demand and that is in harmony with the Brazilian Constitution, principally, in what it says about Human Rights. It’s a humanistic and pragmatic policy,” he says.

Regarding a decriminalization or legalization policy, Uchôa says that the debate still has not arrived at the national anti-drug council. “But it’s coming, and we are certainly going to discuss it, once it is recognized as a current issue. But it will be necessary to have a discussion, with open respect, so that all segments of society will be heard. I want to say that the government and the National Anti-Drug Secretary do not have any position on this issue. Our position will be to defend, tooth and nail, the policy that society wants to adopt,” he says.

In society, and also in the media, a new view on to the drug policy that should be adopted is also being debated. Some journalists and columnists have written in favor of legalization as the best option for the war on drugs. Among them, the text of Hélio Schwartsman last March 13th, published in Folha de Sao Paulo, stands out. There, he stressed that the homicide rate is 2.4 per 100,000 residents in France, as compared to 23.5 in Brazil. “In the United States, the most violent of the industrialized nations, the number is 6.6. In Columbia, it’s much higher: 60 homicides for every 100,000 people.”

“In macroeconomic terms,” he continues, “the recipe to lower the violence is very simple: With it we can avoid the Colombian path of Civil War and become, again, a wealthy nation. This solution (drug prohibition) becomes even less practical when we consider that Brazil, under such a policy, cannot arrive, over the next 20 or 30 years, to the level of social development that would define it as a First World nation.”

Schawartsman says that the country has to seek other responses to this issue, and concludes: “It could be that I am absolutely fooled, but I believe in the theory that drugs respond, in large part, to the violence generated by organized crime. It is evident that if there were not illicit drugs, the gangs would still exist, but would dedicate themselves to other illegal activities. I think that narco-trafficking is among the most saleable – and least exposed – criminal specialties… and in this wide structure there grows a space for corruption of authorities, arms smuggling, and chemical products used to process drugs. In strictly logical terms, the solution for diminishing the problem of violence associated with drug trafficking is drug legalization.”

“May the reader understand,” he adds, “that I am not just talking about decriminalization or being tolerant toward drug users, but, rather, I am speaking of legalization. Marijuana, cocaine, and heroin would be taxed like alcohol and cigarettes, and could be sold in specific places… The day that drugs are legalized, the power of narco-traffickers will be no greater than that of the pharmacy owner.”

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America