Apr 10, 2012

Legalize it!

[T]he most desirable thing would be a reduction in the demand for illegal drugs. However if this is not possible—as recent experience has shown—authorities in the drug-consuming countries should then explore all possible alternatives to eliminate exorbitant profits for drug criminals, including regulatory and market options for this purpose.
Michael Clemens cites the above paragraph from a statement of foreign affairs ministers from Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Belize, and El Salvador. Clemens refers to the "Unprecedented Public Split on Drug Policy at the Summit of the Americas."

The topic is going to get more and more attention. The violence weight on Latin American countries is just unbearable, and much of that is caused by drug trafficking (although, there is no clear evidence on how much of the killings are due to drugs). Violence is just to close to citizens of many Latin American countries that they can't ignore it any more, that means supporting regulation or decriminalization. In the US most of the people is so distant from the violence on the ground in Latin America that they wouldn't mind to keep the status quo [this is when I think we need a Kony 2012 kind of video to mobilize citizens to change the anti-drug policy to save hundreds of thousand of lives in Latin America (no military intervention, to be clear) - most of my students in the US did not know that drug consumption up north was creating many killings down south]

It is curious that what is legal and what is not legal regarding drugs is very arbitrary. In a 2007 study published in The Lancet David Nutt and his coauthors examined how a group of experts would rank the different drugs according o their level of harm (physical harm, level of addiction, and social harm). They found that the official classification by the Misuse Drug Act of the UK is arbitrary. Their results:

Alcohol and Tobacco, the most commonly consumed drugs, are more harmful than other drugs that are illicit. At the top are heroin and cocaine, but the level of harm of these two, according to the classification, is not even 50% higher than that of alcohol. Most of the opposition to drug legalization is driven by lack of information. "Discussions based on a formal assessment of harm rather than on prejudice and assumptions might help society to engage in a more rational debate about the relative risks and harms of drugs," the authors indicate.

There is another reason why the war on drugs is very unlikely to succeed. Formal institutions are weak in the region, but more importantly informal institutions are also very weak (informal agreements among drug cartels have not emerged, or if they have, they have not been enforced). Drug criminalization only weakens the already fragile institutions of the region and prevents improvement. 

The step ahead is to think in how to legalize drugs and what to legalize. If the US government is unwilling to support legalization, what are the best strategies for Latin American countries? To legalize drugs unilaterally? It would be a mistake to stop the crusade in favor of legalization in exchange of other favors or polices from the US government. The costs are to high. This crusade should be an end in itself. 

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