Review of global strategies in the fight against drugs is a task that cannot wait.
The referendum on legalizing marijuana, on which California residents will vote next Tuesday, has opened discussion on the global anti-drug strategy. The debate, led by President of the Republic Juan Manuel Santos, took place at the Tuxtla Summit in Cartagena, in the presence of presidents and foreign ministers of Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Central America, all hit by the onslaught of drug trafficking.
A reflection made by the Colombian head of state is simple and brutally accurate: "It's confusing to see that, while we lose lives and invest resources in the fight against drug trafficking, initiatives are promoted in consuming countries to legalize production, sale and consumption." If approved, Proposition 19 would allow a Californian to plant up to 2.3 square meters of cannabis in his courtyard. Under what guise can Washington ask that Bogotá fumigate, that we prosecute farmers in Putumayo and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta for illicit crops? Moreover, how can this be justified in Colombia, which has such a high death toll?
The need to seek alternative approaches in the long and fruitless war on drugs is not a new issue. In fact, in 13 of the 50 U.S. states, it is legal to use marijuana for medicinal use, as is the possession of personal doses in Belgium, Argentina, Uruguay, Netherlands, Portugal, Mexico and Peru, among other countries. Another effort to modify existing strategies comes from former presidents Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, Fernando Cardoso of Brazil and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, who advocate a drastic paradigm shift.
It is time for Latin American leaders to recognize that the war on drugs is a failure and that it is imperative to change course, as well as to dismantle organized crime. President Santos followed this line of thought in Cartagena when he asked, "Isn’t it time to revise the global strategy against drugs?" This is a question that should resonate in other global scenarios. The least expected of rich countries, responsible for the demand, is to willingly accept the invitation from the Colombian president.
The California referendum, rejected by the federal government, is a stunning example of the lack of shared responsibility among consuming societies and producing countries. If a state in the U.S. — the largest drug market in the world — legalizes marijuana and taxes its sale, the plan to combat drugs must be radically transformed. Decriminalizing the cultivation and sale of narcotics will not lead — as if by magic — to the disappearance of the criminal organizations that, today, profit from this illegal business. Except for local adoption of more tolerant laws for certain substances, drug trafficking is now a complex web of transnational crime that threatens the governance of several countries.
No matter what happens in California next week, the presidents of Colombia, Mexico and other Central American countries have placed on the table the urgent need to discuss reforms of the current fight against drugs, which favors prohibition and criminalization over other options.
Without abandoning the war, these nations open the door to other paths for global evaluation. In this regard, there is no greater moral authority than the leader of the country that has most suffered the scourge of drug trafficking and its economic, social and institutional consequences.