Feb 3, 2013

War on drugs: From prohibition to decriminalization

From an interview with Robin Room: 
Q: If a country were to go that way [leaving international drug treaties and conventions to regulate drug markets], how would it deal with an inevitable thriving black market in these drugs? 
A: Past experience with prohibitions of alcohol shows that a legal drug market would not immediately eliminate a parallel black market, but it would offer effective competition to it unless the taxes on the legal product are set too high. The alcohol experience was that parallel black markets declined over time and are inconsequential in most high-income countries today. The main threat to effective control in a legal market is not from black market interests but of the legal industry influencing politics over time to increase availability and, in turn, profitability.
Sooner than later we need to think how we can move from here (prohibition) to there (decriminalization). One thing is clear, Mexico, for example, is not homogenous in terms of the awful consequences of the war on drugs, violence is more intense in certain parts of the country than in others. In Guatemala drug-related violence seems to be more intense in the east (and north-east), and in Honduras in the north (the Caribbean coast). Decriminalization, at least at the beginning, does not have to be in all the territory of a country. Although decriminalization in some provinces or departments might shift violence to other places where drugs are illegal.

We should find ways to deliver more information to the public and motivate discussion of the war on drugs [my impression from teaching in the US is that young people, (undergrads, for example) are not aware of the violence in countries like Mexico as a consequence of the war on drugs. What is your impression?]. 

But we also need more information available for the public in developing countries. In highly affected countries, such as Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Colombia, for example, one way to promote such discussion and foster change is through referenda at the local government-level (provincial or departmental) to vote in favor or against decriminalization.

A referendum can be a mechanism to increase and aggregate information in society. It can also be a way to get more deregulation (decriminalization). Washington and Colorado in the United States are examples to follow. As with other problems of economic development bottom-up solutions might be better than top-down impositions. Referenda have the advantage that they have a democratic spirit to them that can legitimize a process of change on drug policy. 

Referenda however suffer from the same pitfalls of democracy . . . 

The last question of the interview:
Q: Why do many politicians continue to resist considering alternatives to the war on drugs?  
A: Never underestimate the power of the status quo and the vested interests in it. For more than 100 years, an international drug control system has been built up with increasing emphasis on criminalization and law enforcement. Those within the system understandably fear change. Moreover, drugs have been an instrument of foreign policy for powerful countries in recent decades, and poorer countries have often maneuvered to get international aid given as part of the war on drugs. No matter how badly things are going, one can always argue that any alternative to the current international system of drugs control would be worse [?]. And we are dealing with what are sometimes called wicked problems, where all policy options have downsides. Yet, it is hard these days to find a serious scholar contending that the global war on drugs has been a success.
One of the main obstacles to move towards deregulation is that, for the most part, the victims of the war on drugs remain faceless.  
HT for the interview: Bill Savedoff.

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