Commentary: A new approach to 'War on Drugs'

The Miami HeraldDecember 14, 2009 

If you had asked me 10 years ago whether the United States will ever change its interdiction-focused counter-narcotics policies — and perhaps even decriminalize marijuana consumption at home — I would have told you, "never." Today, I say, "perhaps."

Earlier this week, in a tacit admission that current U.S. anti-drug policies are not working, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill to create an independent commission to review whether the U.S. anti-drug policies of the past three decades in Latin America are producing positive results.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where supporters say it has a good chance to pass, given its bipartisan support in the House. The 10-member panel, modeled after the 9/11 Commission that made recommendations to Congress and the White House after the 2001 terrorist attacks, would have to issue its report in 12 months.

What's interesting about the planned independent drug policy commission is that the idea didn't come from a pro-legalization advocate, nor any leftist or libertarian crusader. The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), opposes decriminalization of drugs for non-medical use, and is as mainstream as members of Congress come.

But Engel's frustration over the results of the U.S. war on drugs is symptomatic of Washington's growing skepticism about U.S. anti-drug policies these days.

Since 1980, the United States has spent nearly $14 billion trying to stop drug-smuggling from Latin America, the bill says. While U.S. drug consumption has declined significantly as a percentage of the population, there are still 25.7 million users of marijuana, 5.3 million users of cocaine and 453,000 users of heroin. Meanwhile, U.S. law enforcement and prison systems are overwhelmed by prosecutions on drug-consumption charges.

Interdiction-focused policies have not changed Latin America's status as the world's largest exporter of cocaine and marijuana, and drug-related violence in the region has -- if anything -- increased. In Mexico alone, 5,661 people died in drug-related violence last year, more than double the previous year's total.

"Billions upon billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars have been spent. In spite of our efforts, the positive results are few and far between," says Engel, who chairs the House Western Hemisphere subcommittee. "Clearly, the time has come to take a fresh look at our counter-narcotics efforts."

The proposed commission will, among other things, take a new look at U.S. anti-drug programs such as Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

Engel said that it will "assess all aspects of our drug policy," although he clarified in an e-mail to me that decriminalization of marijuana is not part of his intentions for the commission.

Earlier this year, former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia signed a joint declaration suggesting that the time has come to consider decriminalization of marijuana -- studies show that it's not more harmful than alcohol and tobacco, they said -- and to focus on education and prevention to reduce drug consumption.

If I had any doubt that the public mood toward anti-drug policies in the United States is changing, a conversation with former U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Manuel Rocha, convinced me of that. Rocha, who was known as a hard-line enforcer of U.S. anti-drug policies when he headed the 950-strong embassy staff in Bolivia until 2002, told me that he supports the Cardoso-Zedillo-Gaviria statement.

"Things have changed," Rocha told me. "We have to be intellectually honest, and reach the conclusion that the time has come to change the focus of our failed policies."

My opinion: Washington is on the verge of beginning a taboo-free discussion on its drug policies that was unthinkable a few years ago.

There are three main reasons for this: First, the U.S. focus on "the war on drugs" of the 1990s has been replaced by the war on terrorism following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Second, the 2008 economic crisis is moving U.S. lawmakers to review how government funds are spent. Third, the drug-related violence in Mexico is creating growing anxiety in U.S. national security circles.

Most likely, the proposed independent commission will not recommend decriminalization of marijuana, but will install the issue as a legitimate debate. Meantime, the Obama Administration will soon announce a new National Drug Control Strategy that will focus more on demand reduction than its predecessors.

At any rate, it's clear there is a growing sentiment that the war on drugs is not working, and that we need to further focus on drug consumers rather than drug producers.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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