Sober advice on intractable drug problem

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 February, 2012, 12:00am


It's high time for a rethink on tackling the global drug epidemic. The US war on drugs has clearly failed. An urgent and honest dialogue is needed. So it should be welcome when a Central American leader whose country is plagued by drug-trafficking violence tries to raise the issue with his fellow politicians in the region.

The new Guatemalan president, Otto Perez Molina, a former army general, has proposed decriminalising trafficking as a step towards legalising drugs. Unfortunately, he has been dogged by accusations of human rights abuses when he was in the army. Regional leaders with better democratic and human rights credentials should re-examine the issues.

There is a need to consider anti-drug alternatives because the military option in the region has consistently failed.

Americans are the main source of demand for drugs. To stop its own citizens buying illegal drugs, the US government has militarised many of its urban police forces, imposed draconian judicial punishments wholly disproportionate to the crimes and created what has been called the incarceration epidemic. The US has 5 per cent of the world's population but 25 per cent of its prisoners. And most of those jailed are black men aged between 20 and 35.

The country long ago made the fateful decision to criminalise what is a medical and social problem. It has pressured allies in Central and South America to conduct their own drug wars to stop supply. In Mexico alone, more than 35,000 people have been killed since the government went to war against the cartels. The US drug war is estimated to have cost US$1 trillion, but with few tangible results.

Since everyone - even most Americans - agrees that the war on drugs has utterly failed, we have to ask what successive US administrations have been smoking to continue this devastating and self-destructive war.