The war on drugs has failed; it’s time to move on
“When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.”
John D. Rockefeller Jr., letter to Nicholas M. Butler, 1932
Last week Reuters published this op-ed worldwide that I am sharing in this blog. Since this is a controversial subject it should be approached with honesty and involve our greatest thinkers on this delicate issue, especially in light of recent events.
Did we learn anything from Prohibition?
Prohibition was a failure in the 1920s, and for similar reasons, the so called War on Drugs has been a disaster. Forty years after Richard Nixon declared this War, consumption worldwide is up, violence has increased, and the rule of law has collapsed, especially in Latin America.
Anyone with a notion of basic economics knows that when there is artificial pressure on supply, prices go up and margins increase as well, creating the right incentives for criminal activities. The exact same mistake was made in the United States almost a century ago with Prohibition. As early as 1925, some observers started to see that this policy, far from stopping crime, was leading to the formation of large networks of well-funded crime syndicates.
Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932 in part due to his campaign promise to end Prohibition. A decade later, many of those who favored Prohibition, such as John D. Rockefeller Jr., now fought for repeal in view of the devastating effects it had on agriculture and industry.
A world of crime
In my opinion, the dire results of the war on drugs are clear. Mexico is paying a very high price --the mythical pound of flesh multiplied by a million-- for a policy dictated in Washington with the clear support of the United Nations. At least fifty thousand people have died in my country as a consequence of this policy in the last decade alone.
In a recent global report on homicides produced by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) it is suggested that poverty and inequality are the main factors that explain the increase in crime rates across Latin America. Curiously in Africa, a region much poorer than Latin America, homicide rates have not shot up and the UNODC does not offer a coherent explanation on why this is the case.
Despite this lack of self-criticism, the report offers valuable information. For example, in 2012, almost half a million people were murdered worldwide. More than a third of these killings took place in Latin America –Europe in contrast, accounted for only 5% of these homicides. In most regions around the world, violence is decreasing, but not here.
The war on drugs is a war on Latin America
A great deal of the violence that is bringing down our region is a product of the War on Drugs which has undermined criminal justice systems throughout Latin America, generating impunity, as the courts are clogged by victimless crimes such as drug possession—and the prisons are overcrowded with victimless criminals. The United States is a clear example, with a quarter of the world’s incarcerations, almost half of them related to drug-related felonies.
The UNODC correctly points out that there is a clear correlation between levels of impunity and homicide rates, a phenomenon that is now out of proportion in some regions of Mexico and in Central America. It should be noted that seven of the eight most violent countries in the world are located in the cocaine route to the United States.
Countries such as Honduras, Venezuela, Belize, and El Salvador reported rates of 90, 54, 45, and 41 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively. These are intolerable levels. The inability of the State to bring murderers to justice is a key factor in explaining this violence. Something is definitely and fundamentally wrong in the Latin American criminal justice systems and this subversion of the justice system is corroding everything else in its wake. The War on Drugs is sustained by a circular logic where the damage generated by this policy is instead attributed to drug-related activities in order to justify it, a perverse inference that generates never-ending violence.
We need to move on
It’s been over 40 years since the War on Drugs was declared in Washington, Mexico has blindly followed the lead of its northern neighbor throughout this period, and there is little to show for it beyond the rise of violence and the steady decomposition of society. The economic forces are too vast. This is a multi-billion dollar industry that has subverted social order and the rule of law. Prohibition only means that the State has renounced its right to regulate narcotics, leaving this activity and its enforcement at the sole discretion of the drug lords.
This war is ravaging our hemisphere. People know this. But everyone seems afraid to speak up. So here it is: let’s legalize drugs and regulate them, starting with cannabis. It should be noted that campaigns against tobacco, which is more addictive than cannabis, have been successful. Let’s redirect scarce resources to healthcare and educational campaigns to highlight the dangers of substance abuse and free up our law enforcement and judiciary institutions to focus on violent crime, corruption, and the enforcement of property rights, gradually reestablishing the Rule of Law.
The United Nations promised decades ago a “World Free of Drugs.” This never happened. Let’s face it, the War on Drugs is a fiasco. Many more people are dying as a consequence of this policy than by consumption of illicit substances.