Latin America Says No To Drug War

By M. Allister Greene

The tactics of the War on Drugs in Central and South America has formed a dust ring around it. But this dust is made up of blood, bones, drugs, money, and corruption. Many people from countries such as Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, El Salvador, and many other Latin American countries, met on Sept. 13 and 14 for the III Latin American Conference and the first Mexican Conference on Drug Policy at the Crown Plaza Hotel, in Mexico City. Speakers from law enforcement, professors, politician from all levels of government, activists and researchers, and UN representatives came together to discuss the need for change and possible solutions to the end the War on Drugs, along with many other topics surrounding drugs in Latin America and Mexico.
As mentioned on the conference website <> the main goals of the third edition of the Latin American Conference on Drug Policy were to “encourage informed societal debate with a view to promoting non-punitive policies, based on scientific evidence, to respond effectively to the various problems associated with drugs,” as well as to “generate a regional-level exchanges between academics, policy makers and civil society in order to update the map on drug use, associated problems, policies and interventions in the region.” The need for changes has come as the death toll in Latin Countries has climbed to levels that leave no child able to sleep well at night in such a large part of the world.
When, in 1971, president Richard Nixon began the War on Drugs, the world was rushed with climbing death tolls, production and use of illegal drugs went up which is no less true for counties in Latin America. But even before Nixon, the Shanghai Conference of 1909 started the first international drug control measures, which led to UN conventions, which built up the War on Drugs to leave a bloody mud-stained trail across many countries, with extremely heavy death tolls in Latin America.
As discussed on the first day and in the seventh press release on the conferences website, the history of the drug war and its effects is heavily connected to three UN conventions starting with the Single Convention on Narcotics and Drugs of 1961 which prohibited the opium poppy, coca, and cannabis plants. The next convention, as pushed by Richard Nixon, the Convention on Psychotropic Substance of 1971, increased the prohibited substance list to include barbiturates, amphetamines not made by the pharmaceutical industry, LSD, and many other psychotropic plants and drugs.
U.S. president Ronald Reagan, along with other world leaders, pushed for more controls in the Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances of 1988. This created clear rights when it came to law enforcement issues, and issues such as: Provisions on extradition, mutual legal assistance, cooperation and assistance to States of transit, money laundering, asset seizure, and the diversion of precursor chemicals.
The 1988 convention set one major goal and that was to reduce, if not eliminate, the cultivation of the cannabis plant, the coca bush, and the opium poppy by 2008. But in 2009, a review was done on the long standing drug policy, but the referral was to keep the same existing policies—the same ones that has never worked. Staggering facts, and studies like one President Felipe Calderon started five years ago with the creation of the Center of Mexican Internal Displacement Monitoring, show that there are over 40,000 dead and 230,000 displaced due to the War on Drugs in Mexico. They also compared the numbers from 2008, with drug-related murders at 5,207, to last year reaching 15,273 deaths. These statistics were used on the first day of the conferences as well as a part of the second press release from the conference website.
The director of the Collective for a Comprehensive Policy Towards Drugs, Jorge Hernández Tinajero, stated in the second press release from the conference website that “the power of the gangs in Mexico has expanded the drug trade to other activities such as extortion, kidnapping, piracy and trafficking in various forms, building a social fabric hurt by inequality, lack of opportunities and the abandonment of key state institutions such as those relating to education and social development.” He also stated later that day as quoted in the tenth press release that “drugs can no longer be the scapegoat for the metastasis of corruption, poverty, and injustice that our societies suffer daily. We do not want less control over drug policy, but a better control.”
For many groups at the conference, the idea of regulating and controlling illicit substances with international law is the only answer to end the death and violence surrounding the drug war, and end human rights violations, crime, and health risks in a prohibition model of drug control. On the first day, many argued for and about different models of harm reduction. Many representatives from the UN were in favor of fewer criminal courts for users and more harm reduction, and participated in proposals on different models of decriminalization and legalization.
Many of the political delegates such as the ambassador of Bolivia, Roberto Calzadilla Sarmiento, and the Deputy of the National Assembly of Ecuador, María Paula Romo, and many others, brought forth the topic on the first day (and the topic of twelth press release on the website) on how the War on Drugs violates many of the constitutions of Latin America. From human rights violations, religious freedoms, fueling bigotry in the court systems, to the corruption in the highest levels of government it causes.
The use of the War on Drugs as a deterrent for drug use has had very little effect on society and the actual rate of use, and no matter how much money is thrown at the War on Drugs, says researcher Dan Werb, a Canadian who works with the International Center for Science in Drug Policy. The budget used to fight drugs in the U.S. has increased by 600 percent in 20 years, yet there has been no significant decline in drug use among adolescents in the U.S. and “consumption does not only depend on the availability of drugs, but a series of social and personal” reasons of drug use. This helped lead the conference on to the impact the War on Drugs has on society and culture of Latin America.
The War on Drugs has more of an impact on the number of violent outbreaks created by the criminal market and corruption of government officials. Many have argued for decriminalization and legalization as solutions to the problem. Though some are not ready to fully back a model of liberalized access, but as quoted by the president of the Human Rights Commission of Mexico City, Luis González Placencia, during the conference and in the seventeenth press release “the vicious circle, that because the judges were corrupt, was introduced to the military situation in Mexico […] Over fifty thousand dead by the decisions that tell us that we must reduce the supply. Probably the legalization of drugs is not the only answer, but would improve the situation of a lot of problems we have today.” The reason change is needed is that “at the moment it has created a repressive system of control, the market is in the hands of criminals,” as pointed out by Mike Trace the president of the International Consortium on Drug Policy, in his presentation at the conference and in the eighteenth press release.
The culture in Latin America is heavily affected by the ethnocentric idealism that the Judeo-Christian societies have pushed since colonization, and their moral sense of purity. This has affected many ancient subcultures, and now minorities of the North and South American continents. Since before colonization, many plants such as cannabis, peyote, and fungi have been used for spiritual and medical purposes in traditional societies, as discussed both on the first and second day of the conference and in press release 14. It was pointed out that “the tension between the symbolic and religious cultures is given in indigenous coca, ayahuasca and peyote with existing recreational uses,” were part of the panel discussion on “Drugs, identities and world views.” Julio Glockner Rossaniz, of the Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities, reported that “how both during the colonial period, as from modernity, has attacked the indigenous worldview, both Christianity and the imposition of science as the only valid truth.” In his presentation he even called for a change of terminology to have a more respectful tone. Instead of using the term “hallucinogen” to refer to plants like ayahuasca, peyote, or to speak of fungi, replace them with the term entheogen, meaning “to create the sacred within us.”
Not only were religious freedoms considered in the discussions of the conference, but also personal freedoms such as recreational use, with one of the major supporters and organizers of the conference being the cannabis movement representatives, who through a presentation on the conference website released their own Declaration of the Cannabis Movement. Heavily connected to the many youth movements from Latin American countries their pledge started with, “We are citizens with full rights, users of cannabis, and part of the cannabis movement in Uruguay, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Paraguay, Chile, Brazil, Costa Rica and Spain. We are part of the movement for reform to drug policy and are integrated into the global collective normalization of cannabis.” The event helped to put the focus on the facts around published drug use studies, even from the UN, that states that “only 13% of drug users are problematic and insists on the political thinking only [of the] 13%, neglecting the remaining 87%, so we demand that policies toward drugs are made in 100% thinking of society.” In their declaration they go as far to “demand the decriminalization of simple possession and use of any psychoactive substance in any country to create conditions for an open debate worthy of a democratic society. Therefore, we demand to stop being treated as criminals and/or sick, and start being treated as what we are responsible citizens with full rights and powers.”
By the end of the conference there had been a broad consensus that the War on Drugs in the world, and even if it would have to start in Latin American first, must come to an end. Towards the closing of the conference, and in the last and twentieth press release, one of the speakers from the Global Movement of Young People said that there had been “Enough of failed policies, do not need another Washington Consensus. We need a new international logic that respects national sovereignty, human rights and is sensitive to local culture.” This urge to destroy the mine field of the War on Drugs came from citizens and diplomats, researchers and activist from 32 countries in Latin America, along with representatives from countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia, who all came together for the III Latin American Conference and the first Mexican Conference on Drug Policy. Knowing the battle is almost won, but more strategic strikes must be performed and plans for after the end of the war must be started now.

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