High Time for Regulation: The Need for a New Paradigm in Drug Control

By Gabriele Furia - 11 March 2019
High Time for Regulation: The need for a New Paradigm in Drug Control

Gabriele Furia argues that the war on drugs is being used to reintroduce militarism into democracies and a new approach is needed.

A 40 year-long prohibitionist strategy did not bring about a drug-free world: trafficking persists, consumption is at an all-time high and every year new illicit substances appear in the market. Beside failing its purpose, the stubbornness with which politicians have stuck to the same drug control policies has produced several unintended effects: prison overcrowding, social exclusion, discrimination and the swelling of the budget dedicated to law enforcement.

Even more worryingly, drug law enforcement is taking up increasingly violent tones. This is notably the case of Latin America, where the war on drugs intersects with an history tainted by militarism and authoritarianism. Over the last 20 years, Latin American governments have leaned towards harsher legislation and encouraged the deployment of the army to fight drug-trafficking. Army intervention in public security matters is becoming increasingly common, even though a clear legal separation between army and civil police exists. The militarization of the war on drugs also involves the systematic recourse to warfare techniques, such as the occupation of rural areas and crop eradication, with tragic consequences for local populations in terms of poverty, environment and health. Mexico, which has seen over 200,000 drug-related deaths since 2006, has recently passed a law that normalises its armed forces’ role in internal security and reduces public scrutiny over their actions.

Not surprisingly, these developments take an exorbitant toll on human rights. The militarization of the war on drugs is directly associated with a rise in extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances. Violations are often directed not only against criminal organizations, but against human right activists, journalists and political opponents. Meanwhile, the underlining weakness of the judiciary, often joined to the complicity of political authorities, ensures that the great majority of these atrocities goes unpunished. The worst violations have been, so far, circumscribed to central America and Colombia, but the whole continent is suffering from this senseless approach to drug control. As an example, between 1992 and 2015 prison population have grown by 250% in Brazil, 242% in Peru and 163% in Argentina. Like a Trojan horse, the war on drugs is being used to reintroduce militarism into Latin American democracies. Similar trends are unfolding in countries like the Philippines and Bangladesh, where anti-drug operations are being used to cover up summary executions and political intimidations.

Considering this grim scenario, it is a refreshing sight to see some governments moving away from a doomed approach to drug-control and questioning the prohibitionist logic that made it possible in the first place. Especially when it comes to cannabis, developed countries are turning to more lenient legislation: The Netherlands, Spain, some US states and, most recently, Canada, have all experimented with alternative cannabis policies ranging from decriminalization to outright regulation.

Encouragingly, it was Uruguay, a small, Latin American country that undertook the first, all-encompassing project of cannabis regulation. In 2013 Uruguay legalised cannabis and created a fully regulated market, with a newly formed government entity responsible for overseeing production and carrying out quality checks. Uruguay was the first state to break with the global ban on non-medical cannabis inaugurated by the UN Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs. Officials justified the decision on the premise that the new legislation was perfectly in line with the original objectives of UN drug control treaties, namely a concern for human rights and health. Prohibition had failed, and it was time to leave the old paradigm behind. As Uruguay’s president declared at the time: “Someone had to go first”.

Uruguay’s example can inspire fellow Latin American states where prohibition has been particularly counterproductive and detrimental to human rights, but it also holds promising insights for other countries. Regulation can have a tremendously positive impact on different areas. In terms of health, drug-related harm can be reduced by ensuring that strict quality standards are met and that consumers receive adequate information and guidance. Intelligent regulation would also deliver a severe blow to the illegal drug trade, by far the biggest source of income for organized crime. Lastly, tax revenues from cannabis sales can be reused for social good purposes. Such is the case in US states like Colorado and Oregon, where hundreds of millions of dollars are being redistributed to education, health programs and drug treatment funds. In Italy, if cannabis were regulated and taxed at the same levels as tobacco, the state would raise between 5 and 9 billions of euros in additional tax revenues.

Risks associated to regulation are minimal, especially when compared to the destructive effects of the prohibitionist status quo. To begin with, there is no conclusive evidence that legalization encourages consumption: it only makes it safer and more controllable. The dangers of over-commercialization can be averted by preventing advertising and sales to foreigners, as Uruguay did. Admittedly, regulation will be more challenging where institutions are fragile and the government’s apparatus less developed, and some have questioned whether Uruguay’s experiment would work elsewhere. Hence why an evident-based and incremental approach should be adopted initially, starting with the regulation of low-potency drugs and only later expanding it to other substances. Moreover, we must keep in mind that, by disempowering criminality and illegal trafficking, regulation will open new avenues for development and institutional strengthening, and therefore represents an opportunity even for Uruguay’s neighbours.

After all, regulation is not about encouraging drug consumption, but about realizing that the war on drugs has miserably failed to reduce it. Rewards can be substantial. Drug regulation can substantially improve the lives of citizens and shape a new paradigm in drug control, one which truly prioritises the health and human rights of those involved.  In Latin America, it could even make a difference between the achievement of a vibrant democratic model and the sliding back into militarism.



Gabriele Furia holds a Bachelor’s degree from Durham University and is currently enrolled in master program at Sciences Po School of Public Affairs, where he specialises in the European Union. He has previously worked in an Argentinian NGO and cultivates a passion for Latin America. 

Image credit: AK Rockefeller via Flcikr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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