Source: The Toronto Star
23 January 2011
By Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil
(1995-2002), co-chair of the Latin American Commission on Drugs
SAO PAULO – The war on drugs is a lost war, and 2011 is the time to move
away from a punitive approach in order to pursue a new set of policies
based on public health, human rights and common sense. These are the
core findings of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy
that I convened, together with former presidents Ernesto Zedillo of
Mexico and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia.
We became involved with this issue for a compelling reason: the
violence and corruption associated with drug trafficking represents a
major threat to democracy in our region. This sense of urgency led us
to evaluate current policies and look for viable alternatives. The
evidence is overwhelming that the prohibitionist approach, based on
repression of production and criminalization of consumption, has
After 30 years of massive effort, all prohibitionism has achieved is
to shift areas of cultivation and drug cartels from one country to
another (the so-called balloon effect). Latin America remains the
world’s largest exporter of cocaine and marijuana. Thousands of young
people continue to lose their lives in gang wars. Drug lords rule by
fear over entire communities.
We ended our report with a call for a paradigm shift. The illicit drug
trade will continue as long as there is demand for drugs. Instead of
sticking to failed policies, that do not reduce the profitability of
the drug trade – and thus its power – we must redirect our efforts to
the harm caused by drugs to people and societies, and to reducing
Some kind of drug consumption has existed throughout history in the
most diverse cultures. Today, drug use occurs throughout society. All
kinds of people use drugs for all kinds of reasons: to relieve pain or
experience pleasure, to escape reality or enhance their perception of
But the approach recommended in the commission’s statement does not
imply complacency. Drugs are harmful to health. They undermine users’
decision-making capacity. Needle-sharing spreads HIV/AIDS and other
diseases. Addiction can lead to financial ruin and domestic abuse,
especially of children.
Cutting consumption as much as possible must, therefore, be the main
goal. But this requires treating drug users not as criminals to be
incarcerated, but as patients to be cared for. Several countries are
pursuing policies that emphasize prevention and treatment rather than
repression – and refocusing their repressive measures on fighting the
real enemy: organized crime.
The crack in the global consensus around the prohibitionist approach
is widening. A growing number of countries in Europe and Latin America
are moving away from a purely repressive model.
Portugal and Switzerland are compelling examples of the positive
impact of policies centred on prevention, treatment and harm
reduction. Both countries have decriminalized drug possession for
personal use. Instead of leading to an explosion of drug consumption,
as many feared, the number of people seeking treatment increased and
overall drug use fell.
When the policy approach shifts from criminal repression to public
health, drug users are more open to seeking treatment.
Decriminalization of consumption also reduces the power of dealers to
influence and control consumers’ behaviour.
In our report, we recommend evaluating from a public-health standpoint
– and on the basis of the most advanced medical science – the merits
of decriminalizing possession of cannabis for personal use.
Marijuana is by far the most widely used drug. There is a growing body
of evidence suggesting that the harm it causes is at worst similar to
the harm caused by alcohol or tobacco. Moreover, most of the damage
associated with marijuana use – from the indiscriminate incarceration
of consumers to the violence and corruption associated with the drug
trade – is the result of current prohibitionist policies.
Decriminalization of cannabis would thus be an important step forward
in approaching drug use as a health problem and not as a matter for
the criminal justice system.
To be credible and effective, decriminalization must be combined with
robust prevention campaigns. The steep and sustained drop in tobacco
consumption in recent decades shows that public information and
prevention campaigns can work when based on messages that are
consistent with the experience of those whom they target. Tobacco was
deglamourized, taxed and regulated; it has not been banned.
No country has devised a comprehensive solution to the drug problem.
But a solution need not require a stark choice between prohibition and
legalization. The worst prohibition is the prohibition to think. Now,
at last, the taboo that prevented debate has been broken. Alternative
approaches are being tested and must be carefully reviewed.
At the end of the day, the capacity of people to evaluate risks and
make informed choices will be as important to regulating the use of
drugs as more humane and efficient laws and policies. Yes, drugs erode
people’s freedom. But it is time to recognize that repressive policies
toward drug users, rooted as they are in prejudice, fear and ideology,
may be no less a threat to liberty.