The Americas need a bold new policy on drugs

By Juan Tokatlian-Financial Times
Published: April 27 2005 20:38 | Last updated: April 27 2005 20:38

Narcotics are still a pressing problem in the U.S., more than four decades after the current policy to tackle them was first developed. The drug war has not worked and, although there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the blight of drugs is getting worse, most politicians shy away from discussing the issue. This is a big mistake. The politics of denial ends up justifying a continuous futile crusade.

Nearly $400bn of US public money has been devoted to different anti-drug activities during the past 20 years, with limited success. After spending so much to control the drug phenomenon, what went wrong? In essence, the national and international drug control strategy promulgated by the US during the last four administrations has been flawed. If abstinence is the most important aim of prohibition, the figures regarding new use and heightened abuse of drugs and the data on drug- related criminality and the growth of drug-taking among the young reveal a costly failure.

Notwithstanding the unprecedented percentage of federal and state inmates incarcerated for drugs offences, the truth is that this policy is close to collapse. And most illegal drugs are now more easily available, purer and cheaper than in the early 1980s.

The US drugs strategy has two prongs: first to step up the eradication effort and reduce the price that producers can charge, discouraging peasants from cultivating illicit crops; second, to strengthen interdiction at the processing and transit countries to reduce the availability and potency of drugs in the US and to increase seizures at US borders, thus raising the domestic price of narcotics and deterring potential consumers.

However, this policy has produced unintended winners and losers. In contrast to what was expected and desired, and as an indirect effect of the US drugs strategy, American organized crime at home and transnational criminal organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean, in particular, have got richer and more powerful, while US citizens have become less safe and more threatened. Prohibition has provided the incentive for well-organized narco-criminal groups to diversify the market for drugs, to channel the proceeds through financial havens and to extend strategic partnerships with other illegal businesses.

The drug phenomenon has created enormous social, political, ecological and military difficulties throughout the Americas. The legacy of a mistaken war that has focused on the supply of narcotics encompasses human rights abuses, environmental catastrophes, imbalances in civil-military relations, institutional corruption, massive civil rights violations, concentration of power in drug Mafia and law enforcement failures.

The notion of a Pax Americana used to convey the sense of a single hegemony by a superpower such as the US. But we may now be witnessing the gradual consolidation of a hemispheric Pax Mafiosi: the growing power, and even legitimacy in some cases, of a new criminal social class with the ability, commitment and opportunity to lead.

Some rural portions of Colombia and Mexico, some urban ghettos in Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro, some municipalities in Paraguay and some islands in the Caribbean provide a foretaste of what may happen if the Pax Mafiosi becomes consolidated nationally and continentally in the years to come.

Such a Pax Mafiosi would have dire consequences: the establishment of kleptocratic governments, the breakdown of the rule of law, highly violent environments, extended social polarization, potential sanctuary for terrorist activities and, very probably, failing states.

On Monday, the most important inter-American body - the Organization of American States - met to choose a new secretary-general. An important undertaking for the new head should be to convene a high level summit to debate and promote a new, bold policy on drugs for the Americas. This should include developing policies to strengthen the rule of law and nation states, acting in concert to avoid spillover effects in the region, concentrating the public policy on drugs around demand control and harm reduction and avoiding military responses to social ills.

The continent does not need a rehearsal of a failed war against narcotics; it needs preventive diplomacy to curtail a regional Pax Mafiosi.

The writer is the director of Political Science and International Relations at the Universidad de San Andres, Argentina.