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The global drug war: beyond prohibition

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian
4 December 2007

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is at the Universidad de San Andrés in Argentina. He earned a doctorate in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies, and lived, researched and taught in Colombia from 1981-98

Also by Juan Gabriel Tokatlian in openDemocracy:

"Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal" (30 May 2006)

"The partition temptation: from Iraq to Latin America" (29 November 2006)

"Latin America, China, and the United States: a hopeful triangle " (9 February 2007)

"A Latin American's memo to Bush" (9 March 2007)

"After Bush: dealing with Hugo Chávez" (13 March 2007)

The 2007 world drug report from the United Nations office of drugs and crime (UNODC) estimates that there are approximately 200 million consumers (ages 15 to 64) of naturally-based and synthetic drugs. The figure of individuals with a serious drug problem, 25 million, corresponds to 0.6% of the world's inhabitants between 15 and 64, and it represents 0.38% of the whole global population.

Marijuana is used by some 158.8 million people; thus the percentage of users of hard drugs worldwide is even smaller. Therefore the crucial questions are: should we continue fighting a punitive, failed "war on drugs" in the name of a very limited number of persons who consume cocaine and heroin? Is not the consumption of drugs a health issue which does not demand such a coercive strategy to cope with it? Should the international system continue to pay and suffer for an American-led prohibitionist Kulturkampf  that chases the ever elusive chimera of abstinence?

The facts regarding the "war on drugs" are staggering. For example, in 1990 the Latin American countries eradicated 23,080 hectares of illicit crops while in 2006 they destroyed 280.694 hectares of coca, marijuana and poppy plantations. In the last seventeen years the total area of illicit crops that were fumigated, both by air and manually, is the equivalent to four times the size of the state of Delaware in the United States (see Ben Wallace-Wells, "How America Lost the War on Drugs", Rolling Stone, 27 November 2007).

In Colombia, the drug barons of the 1980s are mostly dead or imprisoned, but the country is witnessing the proliferation of small, more sophisticated, cell-like "boutique" cartels; Mexico has close to 40% of its territory under the direct influence of organised criminal organisations; Brazil is suffering an unprecedented level of urban violence linked to the drug business; and some Caribbean islands are on the verge of collapse due to the combination of the narcotics trade and gang crime.

In 2001, the last year of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the production of heroine was seventy-four metric tonnes; in 2006, under the nominal control of the US-led "coalition of the willing", the production of heroin in Afghanistan reached 6,100 metric tonnes. In the early 1970s, Mexico was the leading producer of marijuana, by the early 1980s it was Colombia; by 2007, the United States is the principal producer of marijuana, with approximately 10,000 metric tonnes.

Also in openDemocracy on the drug gangs and urban violence in Latin America:

Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit" (24 October 2005)

Sue Branford, "Colombia's other war" (14 November 2005)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: a war dispatch" (25 June 2007)

Rodrigo de Almeida, "The shadow of urban war" (18 July 2007)

Arthur Ituassu, "Tropa de Elite: Brazil's dark sensation" (2 November 2007) Even though harsher penalties on money-laundering have been imposed almost everywhere since 2001, the seizure of assets related to money-laundering in the United States and the rest of the world are insignificant. Millions of people are jailed in the industrialised nations and the underdeveloped countries because of minor offences related to drug consumption, while violent organisations grew stronger and more virulent. Thanks to the current futile policies of leading governments and state agencies, al-Qaida and related armed groups are becoming richer as well as more effective and powerful.

By 2008, the United Nations, under the auspices of its office on drugs and crime, must assess the record of the last decade in the fight against narcotics as determined by its special session on drugs in 1998. As of December 2007, none of the targets the session outlined has been attained. In view of this repeated global failure it is time to rethink the "war on drugs" (see the International Drug Policy Consortium).

A broad alliance - a sort of "coalition of the healing" - in favour of bold ideas may lead to a more enlightened path beyond the current failed model on narcotics (see Ethan Nadelmann, "Think Again: Drugs", Foreign Policy, September-October 2007). What is clear is that the current prohibitionist Kulturkampf needs to be replaced by a comprehensive harm-reduction policy: in terms of health and of law, at the individual and community level, and on the local and the international scale. What this might look like, after so many decades of frustration, pain and ineffectiveness, should be the primary focus of a new debate on drugs.

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