Friday, January 10, 2014

"Peace with drugs" could be better than the failed "war on drugs" - Uruguay shows the way

Uruguay was named as " the country of the year in 2013" by the Economist magazine ( 21 december issue) for its bold and pioneering decision to become the first country in the world to legalize and regulate production, sale and consumption of cannabis. "Heroic uruguay deserves a Nobel peace prize for legalizing cannabis", wrote Guardian in its 12 December edition. 

Uruguay passed a law in December 2013 decriminalizing, legalizing and regulating the production, sale and consumption of cannabis. Under the new law, which will come into force from April 2014, consumers can grow up to six plants of marijuana and possess as many as 480 grams for personal use. The National Institute for Cannabis Regulation will provide seeds to those who want to grow and control quality and quantity of production. Marijuana clubs consisting of 15 to 45 members would be granted permission to grow up to 99 plants at a time. The users can also buy cannabis from the licensed  pharmacies. Users would have to register in a national data base which will remain strictly confidential and available only for consultation by pharmacists to enforce the 40g a month limit for each consumer. The use of marijuana is limited to Uruguayan nationals above 18 years of age. 
The government has set a price of one dollar a gram of cannabis, making the drug affordable. The government will get tax revenue from the sale of the drug.
The new Uruguayan law breaks the dangerous dependence of the drug users from the criminal drug traffickers by offering cannabis legally and letting them to grow it themselves. The stronger and more expensive drugs sold by the drug cartels, will be less appealing to consumers who will find the legitimate lighter cannabis safer and inexpensive. The drug cartels will lose consumers and profits. Since the cannabis is affordable, the consumers will indulge less in stealing and other crimes to get money for their addiction. The government will save in policing costs and get some revenue by taxation from cannabis as they do in the case of alcohol and tobacco
The Uruguayan "experiment" as President Mujica of the country put it, is timely and inevitable given the global consensus that the war on drugs is a failure and that there is a need to explore other options to deal with the issue. Despite the enormous resources used against trafficking and imprisonment of millions around the world, the consumption continues unabated. Drug trafficking vitiates the society with crime, violence and corruption while making enormous illegal profits. The clearest example is the failed policy of former President Calderon of Mexico who had made the " war on drugs" as his top priority and put the armed forces besides the police to fight the traffickers. At the end of six years of his term, the situation has gone worse with more crime and violence.
Drug trafficking is a demand-driven business especially by the huge demand from US and Europe. The current way of dealing with the supply side alone can never succeed. Solutions need to be found by recognizing the reality of consumption and demand. It is not just a law and order issue that could be solved by jails and police. Equally, it is a social welfare and public health care issue. It is this logical realization which has lead to calls legalization of the drugs  by political and civil society leaders of Latin America. In their address at the UN General Assembly session in 2013, the Presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Costa Rica, among other Latin American presidents, called for a review of the war on drugs and look at alternative solutions to the drug issue. They have argued that the effects of drug trafficking on the society  have been worse than the drugs themselves. It is in this background that Uruguay has taken the first step. It may, however, be noted that Uruguay, being a small peaceful country, did not have a serious drug problem or dangerous trafficking cartels as in the case of Mexico or Honduras. Netherlands and the US states of Colorado and Washington have already legalized consumption. From January 2014, Colorado is legalizing even the sale of cannabis.
The demand-driven drug problem of US and Europe is in complete contrast to the supply-driven drug problem created in China by the Europeans in the seventeenth century. At that time opium consumption was illegal in  China while the Europeans had considered their trafficking as legal. The British even started and fought the Opium Wars forcing the Chinese to legalize the opium trade.

The war on drugs bears comparison to the failed policy of prohibition of alcohol in US in the period 1920-33 mandated under a constituitional amendment. The policy of prohibition did not stop consumption but created mafias who supplied the market at huge profit and vitiated the society with criminality, corruption and violence. The US had to repeal the prohibition act in 1933 recognizing the failure of the policy. What Uruguay has done is a similar recognition of the failed policy on drugs. Uruguay will now deal with drugs similar to the way in which the world is dealing with alcohol and tobacco by regulating and taxing the consumption and production. 

Latin America has been a victim of the US-lead war on drugs and has suffered more death and devastation than other regions. The US has been fighting the drug war in the Latin

American soil by forcing the Latin American armed forces and police to use destructive chemical sprays of agricultural land to eradicate coca cultivation and helicopter gunships and lethal weapons to fight the drug traffickers. This has resulted in bloodshed, destruction and disaster for Latin America. The Latino drug traffickers kill each other and civilians in order to continue to supply the US consumers. Even militant political and terrorist groups such as FARC of Colombia and Shining Path guerrillas of Peru have used drug trafficking to finance their activities. On the other hand, the drug crime is fuelled by the illegal flow of arms and dollars from US.
The worst example is
Mexico, which is being torn apart by the beheadings, assassinations and other acts of horror unleashed by the drug traffickers day in and day out. The number of people killed in the drug-related violence in Mexico ( estimated to be over 60,000 in the last six years ) should be more than the number of deaths caused by drugs in US.
Colombia almost became a failed state and drug cartels held the country to ransom for many years. S
mall countries such as
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have become the the most violent countries in the world because of the drug traffickers, who use these countries as transit points
. Drug trafficking and related crimes have made many cities and countries of Latin America unsafe.
The US has pumped lot of money, resources and weapons to the armed forces and police of many Latin American countries in the name of aid for the " war on drugs". The US has militarized the issue with linkage to its defense industries and intelligence agencies. The US Drug Enforcement Agency ( DEA), which has offices in many countries and cities of Latin America is believed to continue the work of CIA in the past. It is because of this suspicion that President Evo Morales forced the US to close the DEA office in La Paz. The American pressure on the law enforcement agencies of Latin America to focus excessively on the war on drugs distorts the local law and order priorities. The US had also used drug cartels of Latin America for their dirty wars in the region including in the Contra War against Nicaragua. The US had patronized dictators such as Noriega of Panama and allowed his drug trafficking in return for his support in the Contra War. US provides arms, training and intelligence liaison to the Latin American law enforcing agencies in the name of the fight against drugs. Clearly, such US support to and linkage with Latin American armed forces is seen as politically undesirable given the history of US-inspired military coups in the region. The Honduran armed forces, which overthrew the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, are a large recipient of US aid for the fight against drugs.  This coup, the first in the twenty first century Latin America came as a rude shock and wake up call for the Latin American democracies which had come out of military dictatorships in the nineteen eighties. . There is, therefore, a strong suspicion in Latin America that the so called " war on drugs" by US has a broader political agenda than simple fight against drug trafficking. The US war on drugs is seen as resembling their war on communism which was used to destroy democracies and create military dictatorships in Latin America.
There is another Latin American dimension to the issue of drugs. In Bolivia, Peru and some parts of the Andean region, indigenous people chew coca leaves as part of their tradition. Coca leaves, considered as sacred, are used in religious ceremonies, similar to the use of betel leaves in the Tamil tradition in India. People in the Andean mountains chew coca leaves to prevent altitude sickness,to fight hunger and also for medicinal purposes.  But the UN Convention on Narcotics equates coca leaves with heroin and cocaine and says that" coca leaf chewing should be abolished". The Bolivian government under the indigenous president Evo Morales, who himself  comes from a coca cultivators community, has fought for the rights of his people to chew and grow as part of their tradition. When his demand was not agreed, Bolivia withdrew from the UN Convention in 2011 but has rejoined in 2013 as a party with the right to use coca leaves for traditional purposes. Peru, which has recently replaced Colombia as the largest producer of coca leaves, is also against demonisation of coca leaves.
The new drug law did not pass unanimously in the Uruguayan Congress. In the senate, the bill was passed by a narrow margin of  16 to 13 and in the lower house 50 to 49. There was lot of opposition among the political parties and even the public opinion was divided. Critics hold the view that the new law will encourage and lead to increase in consumption. Critics point out that the users of hard drugs as well as young consumers below 18 years of age will continue to go to the illegal traffickers. The International Narcotics Control Board has criticized the Uruguayan law, saying that it violates the UN treaties on drugs. But the Uruguayan President has upheld the right of his country to try a new solution for the issue and has called for the support of the world in this new policy experiment.

The world will watch closely the Uruguayan experiment. Other Latin American countries might follow the example of Uruguay. The Argentine head of the anti-narcotics agency has already called for a debate on the drugs issue in the wake of the Uruguayan initiative. The Uruguayan experiment could not only lead to a solution for the drug issue but will also free the region from the US interference on the pretext of the war on drugs.

It is, indeed commendable that the small ( population just 3.4 million) Uruguay has had the big vision and boldness to try an alternative approach to the global issue of drugs. This is not surprising, given their past tradition of being in the vanguard of many reforms. For example Uruguay declared itself as secular in 1917; In 1913 it became the first in the region to grant divorce to women who requested them. It introduced voting for women in 1927; It approved abortion in 2012 and same sex marriage in 2013.

Those upset with the initiative of Uruguay should not forget that the tiny Uruguay had caused the biggest upset in World Cup football history by winning against the colossal Brazil in 1950. Uruguay went into the final as an underdog with 3 points while the favorites Brazil with 4 points needed just a draw to win the cup. It had caused an earlier upset in the 1930 World Cup beating the other neighboring giant Argentina.

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