The Global Commission on Drug Policy is a worldwide body of politicians, internationally recognized policymakers, scientists and intellectuals presided over by Brazilian former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and currently directed by Ruth Dreifuss, former president of Switzerland. Since 2011, it has carried out a courageous campaign to curb drug trafficking and consumption. The GCDP promotes a more sensible and realistic approach to combating this scourge than the mere political and judicial repression that we have known thus far.
Seven reports have been published since the GCDP’s creation, all of which are based on rigorously obtained statistical data as well as sociological and clinical research. They demonstrate the futility of fighting drugs with just prohibitions and pursuit. The use of narcotics, as well as the criminal violence that accompanies their illegal production and consumption, has risen dizzyingly, in spite of the millions of dollars spent fighting against drugs. Around the world, but especially in Latin America, drug trafficking mafias plague our societies, causing thousands upon thousands of deaths. They are a source of corruption that putrefies our institutions, infects our political life and cheapens our democracies, not to mention the damage done by cartels in societies with dictatorships in which, for example in Venezuela, a generous number of the regime’s civilian and military leaders have been accused of directing the drug trade.
When it began, the GCDP’s work concentrated on Latin America, but now it has expanded to include the whole world. Its most recent report, which I just finished reading, is dedicated to a persuasive argument for combatting the general perception that governments promote about everyone who uses drugs: they are, without exception, negative images of delinquents, wasted humans with a natural propinquity for crime thanks to their addiction, who are therefore living threats to social order and security. The people who have prepared this report have conducted careful research, and they have reached other conclusions. First, there are diverse reasons why people consume “psychoactive substances.” In a significant number of cases, drug consumption is completely justifiable for health reasons. Still, the spectrum of consequences that drug use can have on the human organism ranges widely from heroin, with its devastating effects, to marijuana, the effects of which are less damaging than those of alcohol.
Every report the GCDP has published is accompanied by short testimonials from people who come from different backgrounds. Thanks to these testimonials, it is clear that talking about drug addicts in general is absurd, especially because of the term’s connotation of moral degradation and social danger. There is a wide chasm of difference between the case of Nicolás Manbode and that of a Portuguese woman named Teresa. The former began smoking marijuana at the age of 16. At 18, he started injecting himself with heroin, and at 21, because of his heroin use, was sent to jail; there he contracted hepatitis and AIDS. The latter, Teresa, doesn’t drink alcohol, but she uses amphetamines, ecstasy, LSD, and hallucinogenic mushrooms. She relates that her problem, now that Portugal has decriminalized the use of drugs, is running the risk of buying those substances in the street without knowing whether or not they have been mixed and sold with different ingredients.
An interesting case is that of Wini, the mother of Guillermo. Wini and her son live in Chile. The son, born in 2001, began to have seizures which interrupted his breathing when he was 5 months old. At the age of 2, doctors diagnosed the boy’s condition as epilepsy. Every treatment that the doctors attempted, including brain surgery, was useless. In 2013, Wini began to read medical articles that discussed the use of marijuana oil. Thanks to a foundation, she was able to obtain some of the oil, and since Guillermo began using it, the seizures have become less frequent – he went from having 10 seizures a day to one or two, and sometimes none. Given the difficulty of obtaining this oil, Wini began growing marijuana in her garden, something that, although not illegal in Chile, scandalized her family. The doctor who was treating Guillermo, skeptical at first, was convinced by the favorable effects of the oil on the boy’s health. He later wrote an article about the benefits of using the oil in the treatment of epilepsy.
According to the report, the social and moral stigmas that surround those who use drugs make it much more difficult for people to free themselves of drug use; victims take on the prejudice, which weighs on them, and this self-blame agitates users’ desire to take refuge in this artificial method of feeling internal peace. One of the most telling statistics in the report is that the number of people who free themselves from drug addiction is proportionally higher in societies which are open and tolerant of drug consumption than in places where systemic repression is the governing policy.
Although the GCDPy may be convincing in its reasons for requesting that societies refrain from the prejudices and clichés which accompany any type of drug addition, I’m afraid that the only way these clichés will go away is by decriminalizing narcotics and replacing repression with preventative and tolerant policies. Yes, legalization may well bring dangers. That’s why it is important for it be accompanied by active campaigns that inform citizens of the risks which accompany drug use – as has happened with tobacco. Legalization also ought to be accompanied by effective rehabilitation policies. The advantages of these policies have already been witnessed in societies which have confronted this issue more realistically. Further, legalization would end the criminality associated with drugs, which is the most severe affliction brought on by drugs. The most powerful cartels in countries like Mexico leave dozens dead every month in their territorial disputes, and they contaminate political life with a corruption that denigrates their democracies and fill social life with anxiety and blood. Criminals amass colossal fortunes, as did Pablo Escobar, the Colombian murderer and drug trafficker who has recently become the hero of movies and a television series, and is now applauded by the whole world.
One of the arguments frequently used to combat the idea of legalization is that, when it happens, the country or region will become a magnet for drug consumption. Holland, a pioneer in legalization, is an example of this phenomenon, which occurred because there are few places where people are free to try drugs. Still, it’s a passing trend. I was recently in Uruguay, and I asked what effects the government’s new marijuana laws were having. The responses were varied, but in general it seemed that legalization didn’t seem to have stimulated consumption. On the contrary, some people told me that, since the taboo of prohibition had diminished, many young people no longer saw use of cannabis as a mark of social prestige.
Slowly, more and more people around the world believe that, as the GCDP urges, the best way to combat drugs and their criminal consequences is decriminalization. But undoubtedly, as Milton Friedman foresaw many years ago, one of the main obstacles comes from the fact that the income of many thousands of people these days comes from combatting drugs.