On Saturday, the president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, used his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech to call for a “rethink” of the War on Drugs.
Santos, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of a historic peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC rebel group which waged a guerilla war in the country for half a century, noted that his country has been ravaged in large part because of the War on Drugs.
“The peace agreement with the FARC includes their commitment to cut all ties with the drug business, and to actively contribute to fighting it,” he said. “But drug trafficking is a global problem that demands a global solution resulting from an undeniable reality: The War on Drugs has not been won, and is not being won.”
For decades, much of Latin America has suffered the consequences of driving underground a market worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
In Colombia, the illegal drug trade helped fuel not only the FARC, but scores of other paramilitary organizations, guerilla groups and competing drug traffickers involved in decades of conflict and instability, contributing to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
Closer to home, Mexico has seen dramatic upticks in violence in recent years. Since December 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderon sent the military to the state of Michoacan to quell drug traffickers, more than 100,000 people have been killed across the country in the ensuing conflict.
“The manner in which this war against drugs is being waged is equally or perhaps even more harmful than all the wars the world is fighting today, combined,” Santos said. “It is time to change our strategy.”
It’s a perspective gaining greater currency worldwide.
Just last month, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, with members including former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, former Secretary of State George Schultz and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the United Kingdom, called for the removal of all punitive responses to drug use and possession. It further recommended nations explore regulatory models for all illicit drugs.
Criminalization has done more harm than drugs themselves could ever possibly do — from the funding of terrorist and criminal organizations to prison overcrowding and the unnecessary spreading of hepatitis C and HIV — all while failing to actually prevent drug use and abuse.
Santos’ remarks, and the conclusions of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, come at a time when the United States has increasingly come to embrace marijuana legalization, harm reduction and the idea of treating drug abuse as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice one.
Nations like Portugal have shown another way is possible. The decriminalization of personal use, coupled with expanded drug treatment, has been an effective means of combating drug abuse in that country. It’s an approach worth considering, as 45 years and $1 trillion after Richard Nixon declared the War on Drugs, it is clear our policies have failed.
President Santos is right; we need to rethink our approach to drugs.