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Let’s just say no to the war on drugs

09 May

By PETER MCKENNA

Suspected members of a drug trafficking ring are presented to the media at police headquarters in Bogota, Colombia, Monday Feb. 27, 2012.

Let’s just say no to the war on drugs

Let’s just say no to the war on drugs

Gen. Oscar Naranjo, director of National Police, said that 35 people sought by the U.S. for extradition were arrested during the weekend in several cities for allegedly being part of an organization known as the Clan of the Galeano. linked to Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. (FERNANDO VERGARA / AP)

Having just returned from Colombia — once known as the cocaine capital of the world — it’s not hard to see why impoverished Colombians turn to the cultivation and production of coca leaf, cocaine and opium poppies.

The climate is receptive, money is scarce, and there are few substitutes for such a lucrative crop. The so-called “balloon effect” also makes any crackdown on production ineffective, since crop cultivation, drug laboratories, and transportation routes squeezed in one area will inevitably pop up elsewhere.

Is it time, then, for Canadian to revisit our endorsement of a “war on drugs” approach to the illicit drug problem in Latin America? Such a hard-line, often militarized, strategy to narcotrafficking has produced precious few tangible benefits.

Mexico has been fighting the drug war for almost six years now and the supply to the U.S. market has remained intact, or even increased. But on the Mexican side, there is violence and seemingly irreducible carnage in certain parts of the country. More than 50,000 drug-related deaths mark Mexico’s failed efforts thus far.

For the law and order government of Stephen Harper — who has made inter-American affairs a key priority of his foreign policy — any softening of a robust supply-side approach is simply not on.

Harper’s communications director, Andrew MacDougall, was blunt when he spoke to the Globe and Mail: “The prime minister would be a strong voice in that debate against the decriminalization of drugs. The government’s strategy is in fact completely in the opposite direction.”

Some political leaders and opinion-makers in the Americas, however, are now talking about legalizing and regulating the drug market or, at least, decriminalizing the region’s drug trade.

In a mid-April interview with Agence France Press, and just before the beginning of the VI Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, Guatemala’s President Otto Perez Molina explained: “The war we have waged over the past 40 years has not yielded results. It’s a war which, to speak frankly, we are losing.”

Even the summit host country’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, pushed for a vigorous discussion of drug legalization. He was adamant in a Miami Herald interview: “We know that our success has negatively affected other countries and we are pedaling and pedaling and pedaling like we’re on a stationary bike. The moment has come to analyze if what we we’re doing is best or if we can find a more effective and cheaper alternative for society.”

In the end, the summit nations agreed to punt the drug football down the field for the time being by calling for more study. Nonetheless, there is a growing mood in the region for something radically different and this desire for change is not likely to disappear soon.

But as Harper said during a summit news conference: “Let me remind you of why these drugs are illegal. They are illegal because they quickly and totally — with many of the drugs — destroy people’s lives and people are willing to make lots of money out of selling those products to people and destroying their lives.”

But the issue is not the harmful effects of heroin and cocaine. It’s about how best to regulate, confront and diminish the harmful effects of illicit drugs.

Obviously, Canada has important interests at stake, since drugs from Latin America do make their way to our streets. Often accompanying that flow of drugs is other crime, violent gang activity, and devastation of Canadian lives and families.

So if Canada is to jettison the “war on drugs” paradigm, how should we replace it?

First, the Canadian government needs to acknowledge that militarizing the drug war has been woefully unsuccessful and counterproductive. After that, we can start to think about providing financial assistance to improve the region’s police and justice systems, to halting any program that sprays harmful chemicals on farmers’ fields, and to assist many campesinos in finding alternative cash crops to coca leaf and poppies.

We should not rule out the possibility of working with our Latin American partners to decriminalize (beginning with marijuana) or legalize the drug business, especially if it serves to undermine the transnational criminal groups that control the drug trade.

As of today, though, Canada and the U.S. stand out as the major dissenting voices on combating the drug problem. By adopting this approach, we run the risk of damaging our image in the region, of being seen as obstructionist and overly U.S.-friendly, and even undermining our efforts to widen and deepen our linkages with the Americas. We should just say ‘Yes’ ourselves to new thinking.

Peter McKenna is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.

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