ROSS: Heading off a drug storm

There’s a storm brewing in Latin America. It has a benign name — drug policy reform — and it’s only in the early stages. But if the United States continues to dismiss it, it will wreak havoc on every country, city and neighborhood in the Americas.

In January, newly elected right-wing Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina shocked the United States when he called for a debate on whether the drugs that make up the vast majority of the illegal drug trade’s revenue, cocaine and heroin, should be legalized. The Presidents of Mexico and Colombia echoed his argument, despite an immediate U.S. denunciation. When President Obama heads to Colombia on Friday for the Summit of the Americas, he will be entering an arena ready and willing for the first time to seriously challenge U.S. drug orthodoxy.

This is a watershed moment. Officials in Latin America and the Caribbean have criticized the drug policies of their own countries and of the United States before, but rarely before leaving office. When the Jamaican government seemed leaning towards the legalization of cannabis in 2001, given that well over half Jamaica’s population is estimated to use cannabis at least occasionally, the U.S. threat to cut off aid to the country was enough to nip that initiative in the bud, so to speak.

So open criticism of anti-drug efforts by the sitting Presidents of three Latin American countries that all receive American aid is a dramatic development. The citizens of these countries and others in the region have good reason to be frustrated with America. They are now cooperating with us in aggressively combating the drug trafficking that funnels drugs north and corrupts the countries through which it flows.

The price of confronting these criminal networks has been violence on a massive scale. Colombia only gained the upper hand over its trafficking networks after years of costly struggle. Slaughters and beheadings in Mexico are now a daily routine and Guatemala and its neighbors have become the new bloody battlegrounds, the murder rates for several doubling in the last decade.

The United States gives critical aid to these countries, but it is often overly focused on military hardware rather than the infrastructure and training the countries’ judicial systems need to investigate, prosecute and imprison drug traffickers. In any case, the amount of aid — two million dollars, in Guatemala’s case — is laughable compared to the amounts the traffickers have at their disposal.

So why does the new push for reform constitute a looming storm rather than a triumphant awakening? Because the natural reaction when challenging deeply entrenched, broken policies to is reject them and embrace the opposite model: hence, the new rallying calls for legalization. The United States suppression of any reform discussion has lent credence to the gloomy belief that these are our only choices: unacceptable levels of violence or an increase in drug addiction that perhaps could be tolerated. Given that choice, more and more concerned leaders seem willing to risk making dangerously addictive and destructive drugs legally available at vastly cheaper prices if they think it will stem the bloodshed. Fortunately, it is false choice.

Experts, officials and everyday citizens have been developing and implementing alternatives that reduce both drug addiction and violence that are just now beginning to enter the mainstream and have an impact. The HOPE program, pioneered in Hawaii, uses the immediate threat of a short stay in jail and mandated treatment to curb drug use among even hard-core users. The aggressive community policing tactics used in many cities in the United States and now beginning to be tried by police forces such as Rio de Janeiro’s have built a proven track record of drastically reducing violence. These initiatives and many others deserve far more discussion than I can give them here, and thankfully they are finally receiving it in city halls and legislatures across the hemisphere.

But in their overly strident defense of the status quo, U.S. officials risk imperiling all these efforts by forcing reformers into a corner. If radical change is seen as the only way to get attention and make headway, support for it will wash away the moderate reforms that curtail the worst effects of illegal drug trafficking without losing millions more to the miseries of addiction. Before it loses all credibility, the United States must work to channel the gathering storm toward proven reforms if we are to prevent false solutions like legalization from replacing an endless bloodbath with never-ending despair.

Colin Ross is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at colin.ross@yale.edu.

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