Lifestyle & Belief

4 ways to end the drug war


Panamanian policemen smash drug packages with machetes before being incinerated in Cerro Patacon, a dump in Panama City, on Jan.18, 2012. Panamanian authorities burnt 4.9 tons of drugs — 4.4 tons of cocaine, 0.4 tons of marihuana and 0.1 of other drugs.


Juan Jose Rodriguez

LIMA, Peru — US Secretary of State John Kerry this week has come under pressure to end Washington’s “war on drugs” at the Organization of American States meeting in Guatemala City.

President Barack Obama’s administration has so far sent the message to the rest of the Americas that discussing drug law reform is good and healthy, but the US federal prohibition on drugs won’t budge.

Here GlobalPost looks at four ideas fueling the reinvigorated drug policy debate that's swept Latin America.


This alternative, considered in the OAS’s 111-page report on drug policy, is the big one. The report looks at several existing models, including Holland’s cannabis cafes and Spain’s marijuana social clubs. Decriminalization light already exists in many countries in Latin America, where law enforcement turns a blind eye to possession of small quantities of marijuana and, sometimes, even other, harder drugs for personal use. Washington might be able to countenance this. But a heavier version, in which cultivation or commercialization are also permitted — or at least not penalized — could be a bridge too far for the Obama administration in the face of Republican intransigence. Fully decriminalizing harder drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, is off the table in the United States, and has yet to gather momentum as a policy proposal in Latin America.

Costing the status quo

As it advocates alternatives to prohibition, the report by the OAS, a regional group based in Washington, DC, which relies on the US government as its top funder, highlights the huge costs of current policies. They include “mass incarceration,” the “profitable circumvention” of drug laws — diplomatic speak for the billions of dollars earned by some of the world’s nastiest criminals — and “human rights abuses.” These abuses frequently include those committed by the police and, above all, the armed forces in countries such as Mexico — where more than 60,000 people died in the drug war from 2006 to 2012 — and Honduras, where the cartels outgun the police, and desperate governments have sent in the troops. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticized Mexico on this issue.

Negotiated eradication

Despite his staunch defense of Bolivia’s coca crops — the key ingredient in cocaine, but also chewed or brewed into tea for a mild high — President Evo Morales has actually had more recent success in reducing the Andean country’s cocaine production than US allies Peru and Colombia. The secret is Bolivia’s policy of “negotiated eradication” of coca fields. That involves the government actually talking with the coca growers, usually impoverished peasants with little or no economic alternatives, and supporting them to develop new cash crops such as cacao or coffee. It contrasts with “forced eradication,” promoted by the United States, which tasks police or soldiers with destroying crops without the owners’ approval. Predictably, once law enforcement has left the remote Andean foothills where coca is grown, the peasants frequently just replant their fields with the raw ingredient for cocaine.

Government pot dealing

This is the plan in Uruguay. The South American country is not just legalizing cannabis but will even create a state monopoly on the supply of the soft drug. The proposal is the response of left-wing President Jose Mujica to the country’s growing crack and heroin problems. Explicitly rejecting the “stepping stone” argument that marijuana use automatically leads to harder drugs, Mujica is deliberately trying to break the biggest single link between the two — the fact that both are illegal and often sold by the same peddlers — by bringing weed users out of the shadows of illegality, while also acknowledging that, unlike heroin or crack addicts, pot-heads are more likely to doze off on the sofa while watching TV than rob or steal to fund their habit. 

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