This week's meeting in Washington of drug czars from throughout the Americas represents merely the latest charade in the ongoing war on drugs. Year after year, decade after decade, governments announce their latest drug control strategies, sign the latest bilateral and multilateral agreements and proclaim that the light at the end of the tunnel is brighter than ever.
Yes, say the Latin Americans, we will step up our efforts to reduce the production and export of illicit drugs to consumers in other parts of the world. Yes, say the North Americans, we will step up our efforts to reduce the demand for illicit drugs in our countries.
Isn't anyone getting tired of the same old lines, the same old strategies, the same old promises? How many more billions of dollars do we want to pour down this sinkhole? How much more corruption can we tolerate? How many more people must die? Who really wants to see U.S. soldiers wandering around Latin America in search of anyone who might have anything to do with coca or opium or marijuana?
What's needed are new strategies based upon honest and realistic assumptions. Let's start by dropping the "zero tolerance" rhetoric and policies and the illusory goal of drug-free societies. Accept that drug use is here to stay and that we have no choice but to learn to live with drugs so that they cause the least possible harm.
Recognize that many, perhaps most, "drug problems" in the Americas are the results not of drug use per se but of our prohibitionist policies: the violence, the corruption, the vast underground markets, the diversion of ever increasing resources to criminal justice and military agencies, the environmental harms of crop eradication programs and unregulated illicit crop production, the enrichment and empowerment of organized and unorganized criminals, and so much more. Drug abuse presents serious challenges in all our societies, but our prohibitionist approaches have proven remarkably ineffective, costly and counterproductive.
Pointing to the harms that flow from our prohibitionist policies is not the same as advocating drug legalization, however. The more sensible and realistic approach today would be one based on the principles of "harm reduction." It's a policy that seeks to reduce the negative consequences of both drug use and drug prohibition, acknowledging that both are likely to persist for the foreseeable future.
What does "harm reduction" mean in practice? First, that adults who consume drugs without putting others in harm's way are not the government's business, whether their drug is marijuana, coca, heroin, ayahuasca, tobacco or alcohol. Second, that those who become addicted to drugs merit compassion and treatment, not demonization and incarceration. It makes no difference whether the drug is alcohol or cocaine; the principle still stands. Third, that our criminal justice resources are best directed not at nonviolent drug users and sellers but at violent and other predatory criminals.
"Harm reduction" means designing policies that are likely to do more good than harm, and trying to anticipate the consequences of new policy initiatives. With a little foresight, the drug warriors of the 1980s might have realized that their dramatic escalation in interdiction efforts would reduce marijuana exports from Latin America and the Caribbean to North America while greatly increasing the economic attractions of trafficking in cocaine--a much more compact and hence easily smuggled and more lucrative product. With some foresight today, drug policymakers might finally grasp that their relentless efforts to eradicate coca crops have little impact on the availability, price or use of cocaine anywhere in the world--but do perpetuate a destructive cycle of environmental harm. Better perhaps to acknowledge the special role of coca in some Latin American countries and develop policies and markets based upon coca's great potential as a relatively benign substance.
"Harm reduction" requires governments to keep public health precepts and objectives front and center in its drug control policies, and to banish the racist and xenophobic impulses that stirred prohibitionist sentiments and laws earlier in this century. Drug prohibition in the Americas was driven by both elitist contempt for the Indians in Latin America and comparable fears and contempt for darker skinned immigrants and citizens in North America. Similar sentiments can be detected beneath the surface of contemporary drug wars. They are not a legitimate basis of public policy.
"Harm reduction" means keeping our priorities in order. "fighting drugs" does not justify transforming civil societies into civil war zones, or empowering military forces and paramilitary squads, or putting human rights on the back burner and the rule of law in a closet. Crusades have no place in democratic societies, yet that is what the drug war has become.
Our advice to the drug czars meeting here this week: Be honest and realistic in your discussions. Forget about legalization, but don't forget to consider options for reducing the harm of both drug use and drug prohibition.
The writer is director of the Lindesmith Center, a drug policy institute with offices in New York and San Francisco.