When three former presidents from Latin America presented the studied judgment of a high-level regional commission on drugs and democracy this month in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the verdict was damning: The drug war is a miserable failure.
"Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption simply haven't worked," the former presidents of Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Feb. 23. Despite 30 years of following Washington's instructions on narcotics policy, the region is still by far the world's largest cocaine exporter. Worse, organized crime has proliferated; trafficking networks have grown entrenched; and drug money has infected politics. Even relatively developed countries such as Mexico have been drawn into a vortex of spectacular violence and crippling corruption.
The former presidents urge radical changes in global drug policy. Their Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy recommends depenalizing the use of marijuana, focusing law enforcement on trafficking and crime networks, and implementing a strategy of crop replacement -- not eradication -- for cocaine. With their conclusions still resonating in Washington and the region, FP's Elizabeth Dickinson spoke with former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso about where the drug war can and must go next if Latin American democracy is to be spared.
Foreign Policy: As a copresident of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, you have called the U.S. drug war a "failure." What are the major flaws in the way that the United States and its allies are fighting this war today?
Fernando Henrique Cardoso: The [United States] always looks at the problem as a problem to be fought against -- as a battle. But it's a different kind of battle. Why not concentrate the fight against demand instead of trying to put in jail all those drug users? Probably because there are vested interests -- not only bribery between police (although this exists), but also the machinery that is built to fight against the drugs in the traditional way. You have to have a more open mind: Are we being effective in dealing with the drug problem just by repressing, or would it be better to focus on the reduction of the demand and treating the users? The amount of money spent by the American Treasury on putting people in jail would probably be reduced if [the United States were to] look at drug use as a health problem.
FP: What kinds of damage is the drug war doing to countries in Latin America today? How has this fight on drugs contributed to instability?
FC: [The U.S. drug war has] demoralized democracy. The population regards the government as inefficient and the policy as corrupt, and altogether this damages the image of the [United States] as well as the efficiency of democracy. The [United States'] need to be strong and hard-line in combating the drugs has caused democracy to recede.
Look at what's happening in Mexico: It's terrible. To the government, in spite of its effort, in spite of the war on drugs, the cost is enormous. Last year something like 8,000 people were killed. Brazil is not a producer. But the poor people are considered to be protected by drug traffickers, and this presents a problem to the government. In Colombia, even today, some people connected to the political life, members of Congress who are involved in elections, [are compromised]. In some cities [in Brazil], it is also clear that there is linkage between election financing and drug traffickers.
FP: In recent years, Latin America has seen a rise in the number of drug users within the continent. Why do you think this is the case?
FC: One of the reasons is that the United States has become more self-sufficient in production of marijuana, and so drug traffickers are imposing more consumption on Latin America. To a large extent, drug usage is increasing [because] society does not take seriously the drug problem and assumes that the government can resolve it by itself. Instead, this requires a mobilization from families, churches, workers, and unions. We need to spread the awareness of this, also to try to open more the debate inside society.
FP: You have advocated the legalization of marijuana, but not harder drugs. What is the distinction between these two? How would marijuana legalization improve the problem?
FC: Our suggestion is not to legalize, but to decriminalize. When you legalize you say, it's OK to use this. We believe that it's better to decriminalize marijuana. Why? Marijuana corresponds to 90 percent of the consumption of drugs. If the police are not involved in putting in jail the small consumers, then the police can concentrate more in fighting the drug trafficking and more heavy drugs. [That means] the increase of efficiency, better training, and the No. 1 problem -- trying to control corruption in the police department.
It is not reasonable and feasible to ask for decriminalization in just one country. This is why our report will be sent to the United Nations, because we need a global coordination in terms of the approach to drugs.
FP: In your policy recommendations, you suggest that the antinarcotics drive look to the antismoking campaigns for lessons. Why is tobacco a good model for the war on drugs?
FC: It's necessary to be much more effective in propagating [information about] the effects of drug use. It is necessary to shock the population by showing them how damaging the use of drugs could be. And since we have this kind of taboo -- it's better not to speak about this than to hear the question -- [for now,] it's impossible to lead a campaign about this issue. I think that it's better to open the question, to start campaigns, to put official money in diffusing these campaigns, and so on and so forth.
FP: With many examples of negative results, why do Latin American countries continue to cooperate with U.S. drug policy?
FC: Because there is an enormous amount of pressure from the United States and there are no alternatives. That's why it's important to have a new perspective. The new paradigm is not to depenalize; it's to decrease demand. If the U.S. government is not convinced of this point, probably the U.S. government will continue to exert enormous pressure on the Latin American countries to follow their position.
FP: Do you see an opportunity for change of policy under the Obama administration? What signs have you seen in that regard thus far?
FC: I think so. I was asked by the [U.S.] State Department one year ago to attend a discussion on drugs in Washington. And at that time, I recognized some signals in the United States that a new system could be raised. And now because of the new administration in the United States, I think there is an opportunity to open the debate.
Fernando Henrique Cardoso was president of Brazil from 1995 to 2003.
Posted February 2009