Public and political opinion regarding the so-called “War on Drugs” is shifting on a global scale. In the United States, the originator of the term and the country responsible for investing in foreign military intervention to combat the illegal narcotics, there is a growing opinion that the War on Drugs is not only a failure, but also a negative societal influence both at home and abroad.
Are U.S. politicians finally acknowledging the failure of the War on Drugs?
While conservative U.S. politicians like Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson largely either support or wish to ramp up the War on Drugs, there has even been some rethinking even on the Right in terms of lessening penalties for drug offenders.
Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who is wildly popular among the young and educated, recently declared “we have to end the War on Drugs” on popular late night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live!
In a recent speech, President Obama emphasized the need for drug addiction and abuse to be treated as a public health issue, rather than a criminal one. The U.S. president participated in a community discussion dealing with the risks of prescription drug abuse, saying he wished to “restore a sense of balance when it came to drugs, illegal and legal.”
Back in July Obama decided to commute the sentences of 46 drug offenders and the U.S. Justice department is starting to release inmates convicted of non-violent drug offenses this month.
A tragic and expensive failure at home and abroad
Much of this turning against the War on Drugs in the U.S. can be attributed to liberalizing attitudes towards marijuana and its partial legalization in some U.S. states.
Yet what about the countries that source the U.S. illegal drug trade? Since President Richard Nixon initiated the War on Drugs in the late 1960s and early 70s, the United States has spent countless billions in Latin American countries, including programs like Plan Colombia, the Mérida Initiative in Mexico and similar actions in Honduras and Peru.
A bloated, chaotic and often corrupt affair, the U.S. War on Drugs across Latin America has been mixed up with right-wing paramilitary groups, environmental destruction, human health hazards, the rape of underage girls by U.S. soldiers, and the abject victimization of some of the poorest inhabitants of the region. The CIA and U.S. State Department were even shown to be involved in the cocaine trade themselves during the government’s support of the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s.
Will changing attitudes in the U.S. change its drug policy in Latin America?
The U.S. will cut anti-drug funding to Mexico under the Mérida Initiative by 15 percent, citing human rights violations by the Mexico law enforcement and military. However, the escape of Mexican cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, after extradition had already been requested by the United States, may also have played a role.
The withholding of 15 percent ($5 million) in funding may be a symbolic gesture, but it may also be another sign that the drug war is waning and that U.S. drug policies are on the move.
Liberalization of drug policies around Latin America
Ahead of any significant changes by the United States in drug policy, countries that have suffered greatly from the War on Drugs have started taking alternative steps to law enforcement at home
- 2006 Bolivia legalizes the sale and cultivation of coca plant (not cocaine) for traditional use.
- 2009 Mexico decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of commonly used drugs.
- 2013 Colombia stops penalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana and cocaine.
- 2014 Uruguay becomes the first country in the world to create a legal, regulated market for recreational marijuana.
Not everyone in Latin America is getting the message
Despite strong evidence that preventative measures and treatment are more effective, not to mention more compassionate, than enforcement, Argentina is still firmly in the prohibitionist camp.
Brazilian media, and therefore society, is largely complacent with how its police handle drug trafficking. The country’s own war on drugs, which sees police kill someone every 30 minutes, is devastating poor and black communities, which have become de facto police states.