TASK FORCE DEVELOPMENT ON STRATEGIC DRUG POLICY
April 26 –
LATIN AMERICAN OVERVIEW
DRUG LEGALIZATION: A Campaign Hiding Behind Different Masks
By Alejandro Vassilaqui
It is evident that the
efforts to legalize drugs are present and that it is using certain
distinct arguments. One of these arguments, which started in the
United States of America and has added many followers from Latin America,
especially in Uruguay, Mexico and most recently in Peru, is that the “use
of psychoactive substances should be de-penalized”.
This argument is
presented as an alternative to the mechanisms of control.
The focal point is the
need, if not the urgency, to de-penalize the use of psychoactive
substances in order to reduce any damage.
This argument provides an
immediate response that does not contemplate all the complexities of the
problem and does not take into consideration ethical aspects.
All the campaigns that
are carried out under this philosophy are undoubtedly international since
they do not analyze specific country situations, such as Peru. As an
example, the campaigns in Peru have not considered the fact that in this
country drug consumption is not penalized. Likewise we can mention
the case of Mexico, whose leaders have affirmed that they will legalize
consumption if the United States does so; or the case of Uruguay, where a
public debate has been opened on drug legalization.
If we agree with the
argument of “damage reduction”, then using this same logic, we should
propose the de-penalization of crime, whether it is organized or
incidental, or any other type of antisocial behavior. But it is
obvious that this measure would not be the most appropriate to reduce the
effects of crime over persons and the society, and even less, replace any
control over systems that help victims.
is impossible to end the problem
The most used argument
around the idea of “damage reduction” is based on the assertion that
“drugs are here to stay and we have no alternative but to learn to live
with them so that they will cause as little damage as possible”.
This argument is starting to spread among the academic and political
circles of Latin America with evident connections to North American and
All those papers that
promote “damage reduction” fall under the same mistake when they consider
that all drugs are equal. They use as an example treatment with
Methadone, a substance that helps in the treatment of opiates, as if such
model was applicable to cocaine treatment. And they assure, without
the corresponding research, that marijuana is “one of the safest
therapeutically-active substances known to man”.
In addition, they confuse
concepts such as “medical use” and “damage reduction”, when we should be
ensuring that all treatments use the same rigorous medical and scientific
standards to evaluate any non-approved drug. Moreover, this means
that researchers should have a license issued by the competent authorities
to use the said drug for medical purposes.
It is clear and definite
for any eventual medical use, whether of hallucinogens or marijuana or
Methadone, that these are not medicines that should be prescribed
indiscriminately. They should require permanent supervision by
physicians who are officially registered for such purposes.
Argument: Drug legalization will reduce the
demand for the drugs and will only foster recreational use.
This is a common argument
used by consumers around Latin America.
This argument states that
occasional consumption does not bear great importance and that flirting
with drugs does not represent a problem.
This line of thinking is
arbitrary and misleading since it describes consumption as occasional or
recreational in order to reduce any importance from the initiation in the
use of a drug. The argument does not include the fact that a high
proportion of occasional or recreational users become heavy consumers as
the addiction slowly but surely sets in.
If we are trying to
accomplish an effective reduction in the demand, we must not forget that
drug addiction acquires similar characteristics as those of transmissible
diseases, i.e., if a drug user shows up in one certain place, in a very
short time, those persons close to this user will have greater
probabilities of starting using drugs, be it by imitation or by pressure,
and then the addiction spreads out in the environment just like an
infection. This is why we must consider treatment and rehabilitation
as a complement to primary prevention. Damage reduction, as a
control element, should be aimed solely to the treatment of drug
addiction. Not to prevention, whose sole objective is
This is the favorite
argument among Latin American users who are really trying to expand their
consumption chains and win some solidarity. In addition, drug
traffickers are constantly seeking new marketing ideas.
Argument: People should be allowed to
have a free choice regarding the use of illegal drugs
Certain groups, under the
idea of democratizing Latin American institutions, show this line of
thinking. The argument lobbies the idea of an individual’s “freedom”
regarding drugs. “No one has the right to lessen the rights of the
others, including those related to the consumption of illegal substances”.
Only a few “human rights
democratic groups” –not those considered to be serious institutions-
foster this idea.
Most of the organizations
tend to believe that drugs are not only an individual matter but also a
collective one, and that they attempt against public health and the
stability of persons, groups, families and even nations.
On the other hand, it is
evident that nations must protect the rights of the children and minors to
lead a worthy and healthy life.
The argument on
unconditional “freedom” related to drug consumption, leaves out the fact
that dependency, toxicology or whatever name they wish to call it, is a
situation whereby the individual has a compulsion, an uncontrollable wish
to obtain and use a drug, regardless of the price. In other words, the
individual looses its freedom to decide and is forced to continue
consuming the drug. The term “drug slavery” is not a casual or alarming
Argument: The Drug War
“Cannot Be Won”: Its time to just say no to self-destructive prohibition.
A summary of this
argument is that the war against drugs is even worse than the drugs
themselves. This idea has many followers, mainly in Latin America.
Despite all the efforts taken to combat illicit drug trafficking, the
activity is still there, even more greater vigor.
This argument arose with
lots of strength as a result of the declaration that was signed by
well-known Latin American leaders from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile,
Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, Uruguay, and other countries, to coincide with
the United Nations General Assembly´s special session on combating drug
abuse in 1998.
Normally, this argument
is the preamble, the premise, for many other considerations, more or less
evident or constructed with great creativeness. But what would happen if
we use the same argument, bluntly, for organized crime or for robberies.
Following this argument’s line of thinking, we should also legalize armed
robberies and allow free thefts since we are using too much money to
combat this problem without accomplishing the expected results and causing
much individual and community pain.
The aforementioned statement does not imply that
repression alone is sufficient; therefore we must reinforce our prevention
efforts, should be expanded to include social drugs, which are the
entranceway to illegal consumption. In addition, we must go beyond
providing information and education, especially, among populations with
scarce resources: proper use of time, improve education, but mainly
provide training in ethics and formation in moral issues. Education in
health must be provided in accordance with new and updated conceptions and
must not be limited simply to avoiding the emergence of diseases. We must
consider that addiction is a contagious disease since only very few cases
started without the pressure of a peer or due to imitation. The
individual and social welfare, the non-violence, the respect for the human
rights, the protection of the environment, among others, are all part of
the modern definition of integral health and prevention of drug use.
On the other hand, this
idea disregards the notable reduction of illegal crops in Bolivia and
Peru, as well as the reduction of cocaine-related drug use in the United
States of America.
Argument: The legal sale of drugs will reduce
prices, making drug trafficking less attractive
This is an argument stated mainly by the
counselors to the coca farmers of Peru, Colombia. and Bolivia.
The argument centers the
drug problem in its prices.
It is evident that if we
wish to reduce drug prices, massive consumption must also diminish, but
the cost would be an unacceptable increase in drug dependency cases. On
the other hand, any product apt for human consumption must comply with
minimal security requirements, under the responsibility of the
manufacturer or trader. For example, a product must be free of bacteria
contamination, purity must be within predetermined limits, that is, the
product must pass a quality control test. The product is subject to sales
taxes and must comply with municipal standards, etc. Many people ignore
that the drugs produced by drug traffickers are substantially cheaper than
those legally produced. For example, a gram of base cocaine, reactive
grade, costs US$ 129.00 in the legal market, cocaine hydrochloride (USP)
for medical purposes costs US$ 8.00, but these same products can be
purchased in the streets of Lima for less than a dollar (35 cents of a
Nuevo Sol); in other words, illegal cocaine produced by traffickers is 20
times cheaper than a controlled substance.
Following is a practical
example: the sale of alcohol for drinking purposes is practically
burden-free, subject to compliance only with minimal quality requisites
and the payment of certain taxes. However, this has not hindered its
bootlegging or illegal manufacturing. If we visit any Latin American
“mercadillo” (small markets) we will be able to appreciate its
magnitude. Or if we read any newspaper we will be able to recall all the
cases of intoxication and death caused by the consumption of illegal
drinks contaminated with methylic alcohol.
Argument: Jails and the Judicial System
must be decongested:
This argument has
acquired great strength in certain areas of the United States, although it
also reaches various countries in Latin America. The argument states that
the judicial system is overloaded due to the enormous amount of persons
who are processed or sentenced for drug trafficking and consumption. On
the other hand, incarceration does not improve either the conditions or
the behaviors of the persons involved.
This argument is promoted
mainly through the massive media trying to arouse sympathies and
compassion towards the accused fostering the idea that repression is cruel
The police or judicial
problem needs a different type of solution than the one proposed to
replace inmates in the jails for a higher number of innocent people in
hospitals, mental health institutions or the morgue. Among other options,
we must contemplate the application of dully regulated community work for
minor offenders. The civil society should participate and help in these
Argument: It is
unfair to condemn illegal drug consumption but not to condemn alcohol and
This argument is mainly based on the fact that
tobacco is the psychoactive substance with the highest number of deaths in
the world, and alcohol is related to 44% of all the accidents worldwide.
This argument is fostered mainly by the counselors to the coca farmers of
Bolivia and Peru: “cocaine is just as harmful as alcohol and tobacco”.
This argument could be
valid if a decision was to be made on a totally new situation, that is if
this meeting was taking place 3,000 years ago. However, it is said that
the first cases of drunkenness took place during Biblical times, and that
tobacco use was first introduced approximately 400 years ago. Legislation
on this matter is not based on abstract conceptions but rather on the
result of the society’s actions throughout time to recognize and face this
problem. Alcohol is a social drug and may be harmful and very hazardous
to the health, yet it is accepted and used by a great proportion of the
adult population. Any attempt to regulate its use is condemned to failure
unless a long educational process manages to change the real attitude of
the population. It is obvious that we must prevent its abuse as well as
the early initiation of its consumption. So is the case for tobacco,
where the efforts to prevent its consumption among children and to support
those who are trying to quit its use are imperative.
Argument: Drug policies are repressive policies imposed
by the United States. Every country should have their own policies where
traditional consumption is respected, and illegal drug consumption.
This argument is mostly heard in Bolivia,
Colombia and Peru, and is mainly stated by the counselors of the coca
The United States of America does not impose a
country’s anti-drug policies; they are designed and implemented by each
nation to defend its society. These policies must show respect yet
not stimulate the ancestral consumption of coca leaf and at the same time
must try to eradicate coca production for drug trafficking purposes.
Furthermore, the 1961 Sole Convention of the United Nations on Illegal
Substances, and the 1988 Convention of the United Nations on Illegal Drug
Trafficking and Psychotropic Substances support this determination signed
by the nations of the world.
Finally, it is important to reflect on the
personal interests, even commercial ones, of certain people or groups or
institutions who lobby the legalization of drugs. This reflection
will have to be objective, ethical and dispassionate, but mostly it should
lead to reinforce our strategies and actions towards a common goal.