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U.S. Drug Policy Losing Global Support

That’s the title of this OpEd by Gwynne Dyer

It’s too early to say that there is a general revolt against the “war on drugs” that the United States has been waging for the past 39 years, but something significant is happening. European countries have been quietly defecting from the war for years, decriminalizing personal consumption of some or all of the banned drugs in order to minimize harm to their own people, but it’s different when countries like Argentina and Mexico do it.

Latin American countries are much more in the firing line. The United States can hurt them a lot if it is angered by their actions, and it has a long history of doing just that. But from Argentina to Mexico, they are fed up to the back teeth with the violent and dogmatic U.S. policy on drugs, and they are starting to do something about it.

It’s a good point. The U.S. is the lead player in the destructive war on drugs, and for many years it has held this international war together by sheer will, iron fisted control of information/propaganda, and the combined carrot/stick of foreign aid and military power. But that grip is weakening, not just because other countries are realizing that U.S. drug policy hurts them (perhaps more than any potential loss of aid), but also because of the work we have done internally to educate people and the press.

The progress we’ve made within the U.S. makes it harder for our government to punish other countries for common sense reforms.

  • Mexico decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, meth, LSD.
  • Argentina Supreme Court ruled possession of small amounts of marijuana not illegal.
  • Brazil decriminalized drug possession in 2006
  • Bolivia successfully commenced the formal process to remove chewing coca leaves prohibition from the Single Treaty this year. The U.S. has not yet objected.
  • As recently as 2005, the U.S. was able to pressure the UNODC into backing off on needle exchange support. Now the UNODC has fully embraced the notion, and harm reduction is talked about openly.

Significant cracks, both within and without. And each crack emboldens more countries. Each positive drug policy change helps them realize that reform is better than prohibition.

As depressing as many drug war stories are each day, it’s important to look around now and then and realize that the entire foundation of the drug war is being eaten away bit by bit.

Update: Colombia

Colombia’s Supreme Court ruled that possession of illegal drugs for personal use is not a criminal offense, citing a 1994 decision by the country’s Constitutional Court, Caracol Radio said Wednesday.

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17 comments to U.S. Drug Policy Losing Global Support

  • paul

    The op/ed was spot on. I agreed with every word, and it is heartening to see more and more op/eds like this one.

    Maybe we will come to a Berlin Wall moment and bring the whole thing crashing down. One can only hope!

  • kaptinemo

    The international history of the DrugWar shows Uncle Sam a major player since 1909. There probably wouldn’t be an international anti-drug apparatus in existence were it not for that seminal influence.

    But, unlike back then, when it all got started, that influence now is dependent largely upon projection of force rather that moral suasion. And Uncle’s ability to throw his weight around has become severely curtailed thanks to the moribund economy, and that’s giving other nations ideas. And one of the results of that is this gradual move towards saner drug laws in countries most negatively affected by American-styled policies.

    Make no mistake: this would not be happening were it not for the economy going sour. It takes literally tons of money to keep a DrugWar going. When the money starts to run out, that kind of thing tends to wave an ammonia capsule under the nose of governments, waking them from their ‘pipe-dreams’ of a ‘drug free world’, and forcing them to re-evaluate polices that they believed were immutably carved in stone.

    Other nations, who could never afford the DrugWar to begin with (unless the American taxpayers footed the bill) are now finding that Uncle can’t be so ‘generous’ with other people’s money anymore. That’s having the expected effect of those nations seeking to extract themselves out from under Uncle’s thumb. And one of the first things that seems to happen is that there’s earnest debate in other countries (the kind of debate the clueless ‘authorities’ in the US run screaming from) as to the sensibility of maintaining American-approved drug laws. And the changing of those drug laws is the result.

    Always the money. All because of the money…and now, change has come because of the lack of it. sad it had to happen this way, but we already had a precedent. Let’s hope it doesn’t get as bad as it did last time to end the insanity.

  • This is great news. About this one: “As recently as 2005, the U.S. was able to pressure the UNODC into backing off on needle exchange support. Now the UNODC has fully embraced the notion, and harm reduction is talked about openly.”

    And the question is whether the current US government will oppose that. Last Friday when Ethan Nadelmann visited our little network here in Denmark he told us that the DPA had been talking to some US officials and contrary to earlier they too seemed to have had their vocabulary extended and now claims to support harm reduction.

    While perhaps motivated more by pragmatism and public sentiment that’s a bit of a crack in the armor of prohibition.

    Like some of the worst fanatics of faith they seem to instinctively know that even discussing this, that abandoning the taboo on discussion, will inevitably weaken their position.

    All the hard pressure of NGOs on Harm Reduction and our great, Spanish/Portuguese talking friends seem to have been quite instrumental in than.

    That said, this is not the time to let the pressure down. We all know how badly conservatives mobilized in the last part of the 70’s.

  • kaptinemo

    “Like some of the worst fanatics of faith they seem to instinctively know that even discussing this, that abandoning the taboo on discussion, will inevitably weaken their position.”

    Yep, and it’s noticed, too, but those who fear for their re-election won’t dare say anything to said fanatics until they feel safe in doing so. And one thing that will hasten that day, unfortunately, is when people are so hurting from this economy that they get mad and start asking their representatives, ombudsmen, etc. just why we continue to spend so much on stuff that doesn’t work when there’s need for that money to be spent on other things?

    At that point, the elected officials will have the ‘wind at their back’ and will be able to stand up to the wild-eyed control freak prohibs and their cooler-headed, money-minded opportunistic handlers and tell them that their day is done.

  • claygooding

    The more countries that revolt against the edicts of the DEA,
    the better. And when and if Jamaica legalizes marijuana,as they are trying too,it will become the gateway for the cartels,the old and the new ones cropping up,outside of Mexico. All the cartels have to do is move to a country that doesn’t allow the DEA into their country,reduce the violence,and things will smooth out on the war front.
    Now all we have to do is get rid of them here.

  • paul

    It is already happening. It is hard to say where the economy goes from here, but we certainly aren’t getting back to the boom days anytime soon.

    California is having a tough time facing reality. They still spend money on trash, like drug enforcement, and they still aren’t releasing prisoners (as far as I know). It is going to take more heat to get them to see the light.

  • As soon as the US collapses in 2 years or so, the rest of the world will be free to legalize drugs. The tyranny of American drug prohibition thrust on the world will be no more. It will be interesting to see what the remaining US nation-states do. Americans are so brainwashed on “drugs are bad and must be illegal” that we’re willing to destroy our entire country to keep up the drug war, so I suspect most states will allow themselves to also be destroyed to keep it up. some states may legalize marijuana – with needless and random restrictions (quantity, age, where you can use it, where it cannot be sold, maximum allowable THC content, etc.).

    But the rest of the free world will finally be free to enjoy the liberty of safe, responsible, informed, educated recreational drug use.

    I have a dream. I have a dream where white children and brown children can walk into a store and buy 100% pure, measured, unadulterated cocaine and heroin and methamphetamine and PCP and LSD and marijuana by the pound, and use it without harassment or restriction, and enjoy the freedom of personal choice and cognitive liberty. This is a great dream, but unfortunately it will require the American empire to come to an end. And we Americans are guaranteeing that my dream can have a real chance to come true. This country is beyond the point of no return – it’s doomed. It’s so sad, but America is not what it once was. It’s a land of torture, stupidity, laziness, and ignorance. It used to be the land of liberty and a bastion of intellect. What happened? Religion. External (islam – 9/11) and internal (Christian takeover of politics).

    There is nothing that religion does not destroy.

  • kaptinemo

    Uh, Clay? I think what happens when a government gives up on the (Sisyphean) task of drug prohibition, and decides on more rational policies, is that the illegal drug cartels find themselves out of jobs, as the artificial price supports that prohibition provides disappear.

    Cartels thrive in countries which prohibit the items they supply. The cartels wither when those countries decide to stop supporting them indirectly with drug prohibition. That’s why the cartels are amongst the greatest supporters of drug prohibition. And it would be interesting indeed to comb through the private donations of many so-called ‘anti-drug’ organizations; I’d wager that a lot of the money that comes in that way came from people whose livelihood is directly dependent upon the trade….and they don’t want that disrupted.

  • jway

    We must demand the repeal of the Single Convention! How can we allow ourselves to be controlled by an obsolete piece of paper when support for its prohibition is dying in every country that signed it?

    If we are free people then we must be free to decide what laws we want to control us. We must NOT allow our freedoms to be constrained by the mistakes of those who preceded us.

  • kaptinemo

    jway, the problem is that it will require a bloc of the present signatory nations to signal their ‘denunciation’ of the Treaty. Needless to say, the nations that do so must be able to stand up to the US’s (inevitably mindless) blustering regarding the ‘moral hazards’ involved and have the economic wherewithal to withstand any idiotic sanctions that might be imposed…the latter aspect being the most important.

    But the way things are going, imposition of sanctions for displeasing Uncle are themselves likely to backfire, given the present wildly imbalanced trade conditions and singularly lousy economy we ‘enjoy’. We need the world’s goods more than the world needs our markets, seeing as we don’t produce very much anymore besides MBA’s.

    So…if a number of nations decided they were fed up both with the Treaty and with Uncle’s interference in their affairs under the rubric of ‘drug control’ and they see an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, then international drug control would be doomed. It might take a while to die, but in the process more nations will ditch the Treaty for their own reasons, leaving Uncle with a handful of sycophant nations feeling like a bunch of Flat Earthers at a cartography symposium. As well they should…

  • jway: by “we” i hope you don’t mean the US. America doesn’t allow treaties to control itself. Most are not even “self-executing” and all treaties are on the same level as statutes. A statute passed later in time controls and supersedes a treaty adopted earlier.

    The Single Convention is just something the US falls back on to have some legitimacy when it threatens other countries to pass/enforce their drug laws and lock up more of their citizens.

  • ezrydn

    The sound of falling dominoes has a distinctive sound. Heard it much lately? Sorta makes ya want to hum a few cords of “blowin’ in the wind,” don’t it?

    And you notice, it’s not huge, gigantic steps, either. It’s a little step here and a little step there. 2009 is showing itself to be a “slaughter” year for the prohibs.

    What ever each and every one of us is doing…is working! While our own country might not hears us, it would seem the rest of the world does.

  • claygooding

    I realize that cartels only exist as long as prohibition exists,but since I believe that our leaders are going to take us over the cliff with the pedal too the metal,there will always be a cartel. There is already a tobacco cartel forming now because they have raised the price so high,and they can provide cigarettes at 1/2 the price. The same will be true of marijuana,they will price the weed too high,and the cartels will just continue,maybe with less profit than now,but still
    making money.

  • jayrollinhippie

    A snowball rolling down A mountain side soon becomes an avalance

  • paul

    I know drug laws and the attitudes that support them seem eternal, but so did Communism, Prohibition, the Berlin Wall, and the British Empire. All came down in the end.

    America CAN change. We ended slavery and we are pushing racism behind us. Women can vote and are fully equal members of society now. Those are big things that were enormously difficult for our country to overcome.

    So don’t lose hope. There are lots of people out there right now fighting for freedom like us, and we’ve seen that historically freedom sometimes wins big victories. I’m hoping we can win without America having to go down, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the Empire retreat back to our own shores.

    As Milton Friedman said, (I paraphrase) “We know that the cause of freedom is in retreat all the time, but what can we do? We’re not going to just fold up our tents and go home.”

  • Paul Murray

    “But that grip is weakening … because …”

    The other reason why the grip of the US is weakening internationally is that it is losing wars. If your authority is based on force, losing wars means that you lose your authority.

    Someone once had this lunatic idea that the US should lead the world by example.

  • Ending drug prohibition will be harder than ending slavery. Nobody ever said ending slavery would be bad for the children, and nobody ever invoked “the slave children” because they were not considered people (that was the whole problem).

    As long as people are allowed to invoke fears about “the children” nothing will ever change. “The Children” is the single most powerful rhetorical device ever … but it’s an american thing that started when we gave women the right to vote – suddenly the maternal instinct singularly guided 50% of the voting base.