Evan Wood, Moira McKinnon, Robert Strang, Perry R. Kendall
28 March 2012
The use of illegal drugs remains a serious threat to community health. However, despite the substantial social costs attributable to illegal drugs, a well-described discordance between scientific evidence and policy exists in this area, such that most resources go to drug law enforcement activities that have not been well evaluated. When the Office of the Auditor General of Canada last reviewed the country’s drug strategy, in 2001, it estimated that of the $454 million spent annually on efforts to control illicit drugs, $426 million (93.8%) was devoted to law enforcement.
At the Summit of the Americas, Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed doubt about the war on drugs. “I think what everybody believes and agrees with, and to be frank myself, is that the current approach is not working, but it is not clear what we should do.” It’s admirable for a politician to admit uncertainty. And rare. Especially for a politician who has never expressed anything less than unshakable conviction in the Reaganite nostrums of drug prohibition. But Harper had good reason to be a little shaken.
The most important story of the Summit of the Americas was the Latin American demand to open the debate on an alternative to the ‘war on drugs’. The emergence of an increasingly independent and assertive Latin America insisting on a change of direction on drugs reflects an important shift in the terms of the relationship with the United States. Clamor for “democratization” of the debate and a search for new alternatives stems from the perception that Latin American societies pay a disproportionate price in lost lives, hijacked justice systems, abuses in overcrowded prisons, and displaced small farmers, because of the U.S.-led strategy that has prioritized stemming the supply of drugs over reducing its own demand.