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Published on February 21st, 2014 | by Liam Anderson
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Lessons from Uruguay: Drug Policy Reform, part II

Describing Uruguay’s recent marijuana legalization as illegal without qualification is simplistic, and does little to address the longstanding prohibition strategy’s failures. The 1961 treaty on international prohibition may need updating. As ever, it is a question of political will, and as long as it is not a popular domestic policy in destination countries, such as the USA and UK, it is unlikely to be backed by many politicians concerned by short-term electoral performance. A new approach is needed, though, and so the debate must be informed by the current failures and redirected towards improved engagement with the issue.

Destination countries must at least take responsibility for their part of the chain. Perceiving the issue as a toxic influence infiltrating into these states from outside is unhelpful, as it omits from the narrative the fundamental factor that substantial demand within destination states makes it profitable to local and international criminal networks. There is a limited amount that source countries’ governments can do without improved efforts from destination countries, especially as these typically poorer countries face criminal networks which have become powerful and entrenched.  International demand for these drugs has appeared to rather quickly induce supply, in some place or another, rendering international policies focused on restricting supply rather than demand ultimately ineffective.

Western destination states, then, could more usefully look at this demand, re-evaluating its legitimacy and improving open-minded education about these drugs’ negative and positive effects. Regulating and reducing this demand is surely more manageable, more reasonable, less costly, and less violent than chasing production internationally through source countries where drug production and smuggling is intertwined with and usually a symptom of poverty, a lack of economic options, and opportunistic criminals. For example, if growing cannabis or opium provides significantly more immediate economic security than subsistence farming for rural poor, it makes sense regardless of distant international law.

Recognizing failure

In the light of the failures of the criminalization of and war on drugs, there is a need to use, internationally and nationally, newer, more nuanced methods, including regulation. In particular, major destination countries, such as the UK, not only share much of the responsibility, but are also generally wealthier and likely to be more able to address domestic issues. Changes will always be slow in the face of entrenched conservative values, but there have been some signs in recent years. Obama’s administration leaned away from using the term ‘War on Drugs’, and Obama recently indicated that marijuana could be compared to alcohol; even some Republican state governors in the USA have hinted at being open to more progressive legislation on marijuana. Importantly, other Latin American politicians may now consider more tolerant policies.

There appears to be some slow, high-level recognition of the failures of military-oriented policies. Along with the persistent trade and insecurity in Latin America, and Southeast Asia’s old opium ‘Golden Triangle’, among others, Afghanistan’s production of opium and hashish has reportedly been over numerous years the highest in the world, and even increased since the USA-led invasion; international efforts to stifle the illegal drugs trade have essentially failed. Similar to other major source countries, poverty, lack of economic options, and corruption are all factors in Afghanistan.

Mexico notoriously experienced a surge in violence under the previous president Felipe Calderón’s strategy of aggressively targeting powerful drug cartels’ leaders, witnessing record numbers of deaths, brutal violence, and a reported 26,000 disappeared, as gangsters sought to assert control over other cartels, government, police, journalists, and civilians. It is important to note that many weapons recovered in Mexico are traced back to USA, which is a major destination for the drugs fuelling the cartels, particularly cocaine and marijuana; interstate coordination must improve, and aggressive prohibition has so far failed.

Alongside this, several Central American states such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, have seen some of the most entrenched gang networks in the world, where corruption, poor prison conditions, extreme rates of violence, and even deforestation, have been exacerbated directly by struggles to dominate lucrative smuggling routes; established drug cartels have also increasingly trafficked people. Similarly, although maybe less dramatically, eradication campaigns have also failed in Lebanon.

In various places there has appeared to be a shift in policy-focus towards health issues rather than criminal prosecution of users, and several jurisdictions have liberalized in some ways, from Portugal to, recently, Colorado. Portugal has for some years now shifted its drugs policy from criminalization of users to health-oriented treatment, safer use, and information; statistics indicate that this has generated some positive results, including increased uptake of treatment, fewer deaths, reduced drug street-value, smaller judicial workloads, fewer new HIV cases, and even reduced drug use among adolescents. Importantly, there was no massive rise in usage, as had been feared.

The Netherlands has an interesting approach in which ‘soft’ drugs, including cannabis which is famously sold in coffee shops, are de facto decriminalized by the government’s tolerance-approach; an official, de jure, legalization would be problematic as a contravention of international treaties, and so this approach has essentially provided a way to circumvent the problem. Recently, more voices in several places, from Canada to Morocco, have supported decriminalization and even legalization.

Domestic legislation

Regarding marijuana, it is a relatively ‘low-impact’ drug – while it has negative effects, legal alcohol and tobacco have seemingly comparable, or worse, impacts; for example, excessive alcohol intake is linked to many instances of violence. The debate is certainly more difficult with substances which are clearly more harmful, such as cocaine. However, with substances which do not carry serious short-term negative health impacts, or are of moderate risk, it definitely seems more appropriate to regulate rather than ban use, and complement this with education so that people can make informed choices. This is especially pertinent following several decades of failed bans, international conflict, vast black markets, and suffering addicts who are marginalized rather than helped.

The UK ban on ‘khat’, which was pushed by Theresa May in June 2013 and is set to come into force in 2014, could even itself cause some of these problems anew. It is popular in East Africa, and used by many in the Somali, Ethiopian, and Yemeni diaspora. It is claimed to be used by some terrorist groups, notably Somalia’s Al Shabaab, as a source of funding; however there is little evidence to support this. It is very possible that the existing legal trade, which is substantial as an export for some parts of Kenya, will be simply pushed into the illegal sector, rather than being significantly reduced; indeed there are often exports of khat to the USA, despite it having been illegal in the USA for two decades. By pushing this trade towards the international black market, it actually seems more likely that it would be hijacked by criminal elements, rather than the ban succeeding in anything productive. This ban, inspired by the dogma of international prohibition, is in spite of the 2013 review of khat by the UK’s own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs concluding that prohibition would be ‘inappropriate and disproportionate’, and recommending that its status not be changed.

British MP Caroline Lucas’ recent petition has in fact pushed for a long-overdue ‘cost-benefit analysis and impact assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971’; this is especially important given that current UK drug policy costs around £3 billion per year. Alongside the apparent inconsistency of criminalizing marijuana while alcohol and tobacco are legal, there are several positive arguments supporting regulation over bans, especially for ‘softer’ drugs’ such as coca leaf, marijuana, and khat:

  • It can reduce or even eradicate a vast black market and criminal networks. The Prohibition era in the USA, which witnessed rampant organized crime and dangerous figures such as Al Capone, is often cited as an example of a disastrous attempt at a questionable and widely unaccepted outright ban.

  • In turn, this will contribute to reducing major causes of instability in source – and destination – countries, particularly if more progressive measures are applied, to some extent, to other drugs such as cocaine, coca leaf, or opium.

  • Regulation would gain tax revenue, and add a sector to the legal economy. Indeed the ban on khat should lose the UK £2.8 million in tax revenue.

  • It would also allow significant reductions in the allocation of valuable public resources – money, time, labour… – on control. Police time used on petty arrests for marijuana possession could be deployed elsewhere. The net socioeconomic effect should therefore be positive.

  • If regulated, the content of drugs can be standardized and known, which can be very important to the health of users and to medical staff in the event of incidents, which themselves should be, in turn, reduced.

  • Lastly, there is a possibility that it may reduce the rebellious factor drawing youths towards more reckless drug-use. Complemented with appropriate education, regulation would hopefully push people towards more responsible rather than excessive use, as is more apparent in the Netherlands.

Following years of international insecurity, intense gang violence, huge military spending, and exaggerated negative health impacts of marginalized users, there is a need for reform in national and international drug policy. Regulation is not necessarily a panacea for all problems related to drug use, but fresh debate and new approaches are clearly needed, and the arguments and evidence point to health-oriented policy and regulation being far more effective and less socially destructive than dogmatic international prohibition. Regardless of individual stances on personal choice, ongoing failures illustrate that usage continues in any case, and that improved drug policy is a matter of peace, stability, and good governance for millions around the world. The international community – the UK included – could learn from, rather than criticize, the move of José Mujica’s government to dare to try new methods.

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

Liam Anderson

Liam holds a Master's degree in International Affairs: International Security from Sciences Po. His interests include post-conflict stability, state development, and group identity.

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