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INTERNATIONAL TASK FORCE DEVELOPMENT ON STRATEGIC DRUG POLICY

April 26 – 29, 2001
LATIN AMERICAN OVERVIEW

DRUG LEGALIZATION:  A Campaign Hiding Behind Different Masks

By Alejandro Vassilaqui

"The Argument" 

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. 

"The Answer"

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. 

Argument:  It 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 European groups. 

Answer: 

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. 

Answer: 

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 non-consumption. 

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”.    

Answer: 

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 phrase. 

ArgumentThe 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. 

Answer: 

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. 

Answer: 

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. 

Answer: 

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 and useless.

 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 efforts.

Argument:  It is unfair to condemn illegal drug consumption but not to condemn alcohol and tobacco use

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”. 

Answer:

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 farmers. 

Answer:

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.