From: Inside Story America

Time for a tactical shift in the drug war

Will the Mexican president’s call to revise the global policy on drugs lead to greater success in combating the scourge?

Felipe Calderon, the outgoing Mexican president, has called for a transformation in international thinking on drug policy.

In his final speech as president of the UN General Assembly, he said that developed countries like the US were not going enough to cut their drug consumption, so it was time to act.

“… The United Nations has to lead a far-reaching international debate which would make it possible to take stock, on the one hand, of the progress and limits of the current prohibitionist approach, which has led to the results that we’ve achieved thus far. They must also carry out a study on the human violence, the unacceptable violence, that is produced by the production, distribution and trafficking of drugs in the world… and which has made, it is painful to say this, but it has made Latin American and the Caribbean the most region in the world…”

Washington would look at [Calderon’s criticism] with great distaste. President Obama clearly has discouraged and said despite what Latin American leaders might think the US is not wavering an inch on its military approach to the drug war.”

– Bruce Fein, a former US associate deputy attorney-general

Calderon argued that developed nations have a responsibility to approach the issue of drugs realistically, not just by considering a regulated drug market, but by viewing it as a public health problem.

It is a remarkable turnaround for a man who, during his six-year presidency of Mexico, launched and presided over a war on drugs that killed an estimated 60,000 of his people.

Those who have long called for a change in policy have applauded his bold call to action, while at the same time noting Calderon’s emphatic plea to the UN was not actually mentioned in the official UN summary of his comments.

Sanho Tree, the director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute of Policy Studies, commenting on the omission, said: “It sounds like a lot of censorship because fully half of his speech was devoted towards criticising the international war on drugs and the conventional approaches that have been undertaken, and yet when your read the official summary on the website it’s as though it’s been scrubbed of any type of criticism. In fact it makes him sound like a cheerleader… it’s actually quite offensive because future historians and journalists…will assume from the summary that there was really no criticism of the drug war.”

Tree said the UN was also “very defensive” about reopening discussions on amending three related conventions which, he says “keep the international drug war locked in place”.

Mexican drug traffickers largely control the illicit drug market in the US.

Calderon still has a couple of months left [in office]…he’s just planting the seed for that thought process to spread a little bit and maybe influence Pena Nieto [Mexico’s incoming president] to continue the dialogue or push for revision of international drug policy.”

– Sylvia Longmire, a drug war analyst

About 90 per cent of drugs entering the US are believed to be controlled by Mexican drug gangs, whose presence has grown from 230 US cities in 2008 to more than 1,000 cities in 2010.

According to the US Department of Justice, Mexican drug gangs make about $39bn in profits a year, with $6.5bn from exports to the US alone.

A World Health Organisation study shows the US is leading the world in drug abuse.

According to a new study, marijuana is the most commonly abused drug in the US. It showed a drop in cocaine abuse but a rise in heroin abuse, with heroin users growing from 161,000 in 2007 to 281,000 in 2011.

So what does this mean for the future of the war on drugs?

To discuss this on Inside Story Americas with presenter Shihab Rattansi are guests: Bruce Fein, a former US associate deputy attorney-general; Sylvia Longmire, an analyst on the drug war; and Laura Carlsen, the director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy.

“It is absolutely outrageous that once Calderon has thrown down the gauntlet to the UN, and indirectly to the US government…, that the UN is giving this indication that it plans to completely ignore the challenge.”

Laura Carlsen, from the Center for International Policy

Calderon’s call for drug addiction to be made a public health issue was echoed by Latin American leaders:

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina: “We believe that our war against drugs has serious shortcomings. It has not been possible to eradicate the consumption of drugs in the world. The time has come to accept this fight and to adapt this fight taking into account the new realities… It’s important that we address the problem for what it is, a public health issue more than a problem for criminal justice… Let us not fill our jails with thousands of young people who can have a different life if we approach this in a different way.”

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos: “It is our duty to determine, on an objective, scientific basis, if we are doing the best we can, or if there are better options to combat this scourge… This is only a first step, but one of great importance, as it is the beginning of a discussion that the world has avoided for many years, and one we hope will produce concrete results. The debate on drugs must be frank, and without a doubt, global.”