Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift
Brookings Event Sheds Light into the Current State of Drug Policy and its Alternatives
By Sean Hannley
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
April 20, 2009
On April 6th the Brookings Institution hosted a panel to discuss possible changes in United States Drug Control Policy. The panel consisted of Fernando Cardoso, the former president of Brazil, César Gaviria, the former president of Colombia, John Walters, George W. Bush’s “Drug Czar”, José Miguel Insulza, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, and Kevin Casas-Zamora, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Former president Cardoso began by noting two things: that violence and corruption are associated with drug control strategies and that supply side measures have failed. It affects the day to day lives of citizens in every country involved and is a threat to democratic institutions. He noted that talking about drug policy reform has been associated with tolerance toward crime and has become a taboo, and that this is rooted in prejudice. The U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which meets to discuss issues relating to international drug control, has recently expanded its membership, and with new countries come new ideas, most of a less repressive nature. Supply side measures, such as interdiction, have proven to be a failure. South America is still the main exported of cannabis and cocaine and is increasing the production and export of heroine and other drugs as well. Cardoso said that U.S. supply side reduction efforts have a “disastrous impact on people’s lives” and are caused by a “politicalization of crime” which exists in the United States. Cardoso said that South America believes that the solution is in demand side reductions and put forward three principals for a better way forward in drug control: mitigating harm, reducing demand, and fighting organized crime. Cardoso, speaking from the report put out by the Brookings and written by himself, former president Gaviria, former president Zedillo of Mexico and 17 other scholars, recommended the legalization of cannabis for personal use. While he said that cannabis has negative health effects, they are similar to tobacco. He said that clear language and factual arguments, similar to anti-tobacco campaigns or STD awareness campaigns would the most effective method in reducing the use of cannabis. Cardoso said that legalizing cannabis would “break the grip of organized crime and corruption” throughout the region.
Former president Gaviria began by noting that “drugs are harmful”, but criminalization puts consumers in control and legalization of cannabis for personal use would free up resources which could be spent more effectively. He noted that the United States has over 500,000 people in jail for possession and that Latin America cannot copy U.S. prohibition policies because it would be far too expensive. Gaviria pointed out that the United States is spending $40 billion a year “for results that are quite poor.” He claimed that it is impossible to debate changes in drug strategy in the United States because one is seen as being “soft on crime.” Gaviria said that Plan Colombia was an “extraordinary effort” at supply side reduction, costing both the United States and Colombia $40 billion each. Gaviria said that Plan Colombia was “very well executed” and initially successful, becoming less and less successful until it was a complete failure. The U.S., initially excited about the success of the program, stopped reporting on it in 2006. Colombia’s production of coca in 2007 showed a 27% increase from the year before. Gaviria said that any efforts in Mexico might help to stabilize the country but will not stop the flow of drugs from Mexico into the United States. Gaviria said that “the policy of trying to stop drugs flowing into the U.S. is a failure,” and, “the only thing we can do is reduce demand in the U.S.” Gaviria believes that the logic behind U.S. drug prohibition was that addicts commit crimes to pay for their drugs and prohibition would stop this. He says that Europe’s “harm reduction strategy” calls for a different prescription, namely, providing drugs medically. Gaviria said that it costs $450,000 to put one drug user in jail for one year, and that the government could treat ten drug addicts for that price. He claimed that prevention programs in the United States are a disaster because they are systematically untested and usually consist of sending in a policeman to say, “If you use drugs, you go to jail.” Gaviria finished by saying that a “tough policy” doesn’t improve the situation or reduce drug use.
The next speaker was John Walters, George W. Bush’s “Drug Czar”. The tone of the event immediately changed from one of educated men working together to improve public policy, to the sort of “us vs. them” and “you don’t understand” tone that has characterized the Bush administration for the last eight years. He began by saying that, despite previous comments to the contrary, there is a debate about drug control on the United States. He said that the distinguished fellows at the Brookings Institute were engaged in a “cartoonish debate.” He smugly told the two former presidents that since their arguments weren’t in place now it meant that they were incorrect. He claimed that the United States “doesn’t throw people into jail” for possession, but rather uses drug courts. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: The United States has more of its citizens in prison for possession offences currently than the entire number of individuals who have gone through the drug court system. Drug courts have been seen as a fundamental challenge to basic principles of law such as a trial.) He said that the policies in the United States have gone a long way toward dealing with “the disease of addiction.” He claimed that mandatory random drug test for students were a huge step in the right direction and that the Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot be used to punish students. Walters said that the United States has made huge progress by comparing current levels of drug use to those of peak years. Walters derided the other panelists, saying “if you’re gonna make policy recommendations, you need to look at the facts.” He finished by saying that Plan Colombia has been responsible for one of the largest improvements in human rights in any nation.
The moderator, addressing Mr. Walters, pointed out that according to recent polls, “76% of Americans feel that the drug war has failed” and that most Americans feel that it cannot be changed. Mr. Walters responded to those statistics by saying that he had a “categorical disagreement” with the panelists. He said that the war on drugs will never be over and that “it cannot fail because it will never end.”
José Miguel Insulza began by criticizing repressionary measures on the grounds that as a business becomes riskier, the rewards increase. He claimed that education and treatment produced real results and that we should still engage in interdiction. He said that the United States should, “give treatment and education a chance,” and, addressing Mr. Walters, “we can still repress people and do all that.” He finished by making the point that drug processing and smuggling are the real issues rather than growing because that is where the profits lie.
Kevin Casas-Zamora, addressing Mr. Walters, began by saying that “there are real debates” about drug control policy, however, it is a “moral debate.” Drug use is viewed by much of the population as “evil” which ruins the possibilities of having an honest debate because when evil is at stake, no price is too high. Casas-Zamora claimed that “the results are too poor and the costs are too high” and that the results have been similar to the Cuban embargo. Casas-Zamora pointed to the number of people being murdered because of the drug war: there have been very high numbers of murders in the Caribbean and the half of the murders in Mexico were because of the drug war and this, he said, creates the true “moral degradation.”
Former President Gaviria began the question and answer session by berating Walters, expressing the frustration that was felt by many in the room due to this “policy failure.” Among his eight-point response were the facts that drug use hasn’t decreased since the 1990s and that eradication programs like those being used in his country, Colombia, have been totally ineffective and have created a massive humanitarian disaster in the form of displaced people. Walters, responding to a different question, told the audience that he and the ONDCP manipulates data to support their arguments and accused the “other side” of doing the same thing. Former President Cardozo made the point that with or without repression, there is a time in people’s lives when they use drugs and then they stop, while Walters shook his head and rolled his eyes. Former President Gaviria made the final statement, addressing Walters, telling the audience that he used to think the same as Walters and used to work with him. He claimed that they have strengthened law and order in Colombia, but have not stopped the flow of drugs.
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