First Battle May be Lost, But the Drug War is Not Over

Jelsma: no evidence more lenient approaches on criminalisation lead to increase in drug use
18 May 2010
In the media

Despite decades of a U.S.-financed drug war in the region, drug trafficking and drug use are on the rise throughout Latin America.

On May 8, her first day in office, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla fulfilled a campaign promise and created a national anti-drug commission to combat drug trafficking and reduce the consumption of illegal substances in Costa Rica. The day before, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera flew over Santiago on board a spy plane that helped seize more than 300 kilograms of illicit drugs and disband two criminal organization involved in drug trafficking.

For the casual reader these events may seem like everyday drug war activity. But for Latin Americanists they underscore a disconcerting development, unimaginable just years ago: the region’s model nations are now on the frontline of the fight against drugs. Despite decades of a U.S.-financed drug war in the region, drug trafficking and drug use are on the rise throughout Latin America.

According to a new Gallup poll released May 7, 43 percent of Latin Americans say that illicit drug trafficking or drug sales are taking place in their neighborhoods. The number of people reporting such activity has grown faster in Brazil, Chile and Argentina, countries not typically associated with drug production or cartels. As former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Cesar Gaviria and Ernesto Zedillo, from Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, wrote more than a year ago, the region is now “further than ever from the goal of eradicating drugs.” If there is a silver lining to the failure of the war on drugs it is that alternative policies can finally be taken into serious consideration.

The debate is no longer hamstrung by certain drug war presuppositions and prejudices, such as the notion that lenience is equivalent to capitulation. This is particularly true in the search for new demand side strategies. Reducing sentences and lowering reliance on incarceration, for example, are no longer considered taboo. A U.S. congressional hearing this past week reviewed “Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement,” or HOPE, a program that applies shorter and swifter jail sentences for drug users on probation. A one-year study found that HOPE probationers were 55% less likely to be arrested for a new crime or 72% less likely to use drugs than those on the traditional probation system.

Offenders under the traditional system never had sufficient incentive to quit. For most of their supervised time, they could continue their behavior. And when long jail sentences became the only alternative, the underlying causes of substance abuse were never addressed.

Like the HOPE program, President Obama’s new National Drug Control Strategy released this past week reveals a desire to address the pernicious “drug-crime cycle” by acknowledging that unless drug addiction is addressed drug offenders will continue to pass in and out of the prison system.

The strategy places new importance on public health solutions in addition to the usual public safety response of previous plans. “It is time for the public health and the healthcare system to be encouraged and supported in assuming a more central, integrated role in reducing drug use and its consequences through prevention,” the strategy states, adding “drug addiction is a disease with a biological basis.”

New approaches abroad are also seeking to distinguish between the drug user and the drug pusher. In Ecuador, for instance, a 2008 constitutional reform led to the release of hundreds of prisoners who had been sentenced for carrying less than 2 kilograms of drugs and who had served 10% of their sentence or a minimum of one year. According to Maria Paula Romo, chair of the Justice Commission of the National Assembly of Ecuador, the rate of recidivism among those released has been 0.5%.

Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute says there is no evidence that more lenient approaches toward drug users have led to “a significant increase in drug use or drug-related harm.” Instead, Jelsma, who has tracked global legal reforms that reduce criminal sanctions for drug possession, said they have helped ease the burden on judicial systems and prison capacity and freed resources “for more effective treatment, harm reduction and crime prevention programs, as well as allowing law enforcement to focus on organized crime and corruption.” If reduced criminal sanctions coupled with effective treatment succeed in reducing demand, it seems fair to suppose that the market for illegal drugs and thus the profits from drug trafficking will eventually shrink.

The search for new alternatives to the war on drugs is just beginning and policy change in Washington will proceed incrementally. Still, with so many more countries and people affected, the need for more successful strategies is greater than ever.

Marcela Sanchez has written for the New York Times and The Washington Post in the US, major newspapers El Espectador and El Tiempo in Colombia, as well as En Vivo and QAP TV channels, and for Venezuela's Daily Journal and the Latin American Herald Tribune.