Latin America Needs to End War on Drugs

June 18, 2016 Updated: June 18, 2016

MEDELLIN, Colombia—Regarding drug abuse and drug-related problems, there is a global consensus: Drug usage is bad and should be reduced.

However, there is no consensus as to how to do that and most countries continue to use criminal law and violence to fight drug abuse.

In Latin America, there is a growing number of thought leaders and political leaders who think the abuse of drugs is a health issue, rather than a criminal issue.

We should never have dealt with drugs as a criminal issue.
— Ilona Szabó de Carvalho, executive-director, Igarapé Institute

“We should never have dealt with drugs as a criminal issue. Drugs are a health issue and if we had faced that long ago, we would not have the problems we have today,” said Ilona Szabó de Carvalho, the executive-director of Brazilian think tank Igarapé Institute, at the World Economic Forum on Latin America in Medellin, Colombia, on June 16.

Previously, she was the executive-coordinator of the secretariat of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a think tank whose studies show how ineffective the war on drugs has been.

Especially Latin America has suffered from too much violence according to Szabó de Carvalho. “Drugs are putting our democracies at risk, are corrupting our institutions, the levels of violence are out of control.”

(Global Commission on Drug Policy Report 2011)
(Global Commission on Drug Policy Report 2011)

She cited the experience of many countries who have started to decriminalize drugs, separated the user from large drug dealers, and started to educate people about drug abuse from a health perspective.

As a result, usage went down in several cases and young people have more difficulty getting drugs, the main concern of opponents of legalization. In addition curing and educating people is much cheaper and effective than putting users into prison.

The system today, however, is different: “Who regulates drugs are criminal organizations. Because they do, anybody can have it with a quality that nobody cares about. At any age, you can buy it and in any place from schools to prisons. What we have today is the free for all market but in the hands of the wrong people.”

I’m a total promoter of the idea of legalization; of moving from prohibition into regulation.
— Vicente Fox, former president, Mexico

Szabó de Carvalho, however, is not for complete legalization and instead believes in a nuanced approach of having different degrees of regulation and different approaches to curing drug abuse depending on which drug, which country, and which group of users. “There will be different degrees of regulation. We don’t want to have it Colorado style.”

She also does not want drug criminals to get away scot-free: “Fight criminals, fight hard, but fight their money, look at money laundering. Stop killing everybody and focus on intelligent deterrents. The way to fight criminal organizations is by going after their money.”

Ending the war on drugs and drug violence has garnered support from world leaders such as former secretary-general of the United Nations Kofi Annan as well as Mexico’s former President Vicente Fox.

“What is illegal and is penalized is producing, distributing, selling, money laundering. In most of the world now, consumption is not forbidden. This is why the paradigm should be changed. I’m a total promoter of the idea of legalization; of moving from prohibition into regulation,” Fox told Epoch Times in an earlier interview. 

Many people criticize leaders like Fox for speaking out about this issue only after their time in office has finished. For this Ms. Szabó de Carvalho has a simple but convincing explanation: “Sitting presidents have political costs.” A cost that needs to be reduced to stop the war on drugs.