Latin American ex-presidents call for shift in drug war

21 killed in drug violence: Mexican soldiers watch as police and forensic workers load bodies into a van after a drug gang kidnapped and killed six people in Villa Ahumada in northern Mexico on Tuesday. Gunbattles between the drug gang and troops left 15 others dead, including a soldier. About 6,000 people have died in drug-related violence in the past year.

Associated Press

21 killed in drug violence: Mexican soldiers watch as police and forensic workers load bodies into a van after a drug gang kidnapped and killed six people in Villa Ahumada in northern Mexico on Tuesday. Gunbattles between the drug gang and troops left 15 others dead, including a soldier. About 6,000 people have died in drug-related violence in the past year.

MIAMI — With drug violence and consumption rising across the hemisphere, a commission of three former Latin American presidents has blasted the U.S.-led drug war, calling it a failure and badly in need of public re-examination.

Drug policy needs to move away from exclusive reliance on policing, to be treated as a broader public health issue with greater emphasis on reducing the harm drugs cause, according to the Latin-American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, led by three former presidents from Brazil, Mexico and Colombia.

"The available evidence indicates that the war on drugs is a failed war," said Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a former president of Brazil (1995-2003) noted for his fiscal conservatism.

The report calls for "a rigorous evaluation" of alternatives to drug prohibition, including European methods of drug prevention and treatment. The commission said it was not endorsing legalization of drugs, though its recommendations did call for an evaluation of the possible decriminalization of marijuana, as well as intensified efforts to educate youths.

"This report represents a major leap forward in the global drug policy debate," said Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates reform of current drug policy.

While it is not the first time Latin American leaders have criticized global drug policy, analysts say it is the most thorough and high-level effort to do so. "An ever-growing number of Latin American leaders from across the political spectrum recognize that the prohibitionist approach to drug control has wreaked havoc throughout the region," Nadelmann said.

Drug-related violence has claimed about 6,000 lives in Mexico in the past year, according to the government. At least 21 people died in Mexico on Tuesday in one incident near a town close to the U.S. border. A drug gang kidnapped and killed six people, and 15 others died in gunbattles with soldiers.

The creation of the commission coincides with a review of global drug policies within the United Nations, which concludes next month with a major meeting in Austria. The commission was formed by several nonprofit groups in Latin America working on drug issues and backed by the Open Society Institute, founded by U.S. financier and philanthropist George Soros. The commission apparently chose not to invite serving Latin American presidents in order to give the commission more political freedom to speak openly.

The report echoes the finding of a recent Brookings Institution study, which concluded that intense interdiction and eradication efforts have failed to decrease the global supply of drugs. Punitive methods have also had no success in lowering drug use, it said.

Latin America is increasingly facing its own problem with drug consumption, a new phenomenon in most countries that has been growing alarmingly, especially in Brazil and Mexico. Latin American countries do not have the resources to follow the U.S. policy of throwing drug users in jail, said former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria (1990-94), noting that the U.S. jail population has tripled in recent years due to drug crimes.

The commission also stressed the need to "break the taboo" in the debate over drug policy, which has silenced criticism of current policy. "We would really like to see a debate in the U.S.," added Gaviria, who said the United States remained key to setting global drug policy as it is by far the largest drug consumer market.

Politicians, he said, were fearful of addressing the drug issue "because they might be called soft on crime."

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

The drug war

Where the money goes: About three-quarters of the U.S. anti-drug effort goes toward enforcement, particularly arresting and prosecuting and imprisoning drug offenders, according to congressional testimony last year by University of Maryland drug expert Peter Reuter. The number of people jailed on drug charges is up tenfold since 1980, from 50,000 to more than 500,000 today, at a cost of $15 billion a year.

Obama's stance: As a presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama said that the "war on drugs is an utter failure" and that he believes in "shifting the paradigm, shifting the model, so that we focus more on a public health approach." He has also supported decriminalizing marijuana. ABC News reported Wednesday that Obama is considering appointing Seattle police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, as his drug czar. Seattle is known for its lax policy on marijuana, as well as progressive drug prevention and treatment policies.

Latin American ex-presidents call for shift in drug war 02/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 10:41pm]

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