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Emerging Markets

Drug war failures condemned

Brazilian ex-president laments “disastrous” policies, calls for fresh thinking

It is time to acknowledge the “failure” of the “war on drugs” and its “disastrous consequences”, former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso has said in an interview with Emerging Markets.

Mexico is the “epicentre” of the problem, said Cardoso – who together with former presidents Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico is spearheading a continent-wide initiative on drugs.

Cardoso reiterated calls for a new approach, in a week when Mexican president Felipe Calderon challenged the US to take more responsibility for the drugs problem, which has brought northern Mexico close to civil war.

Calderon said the US should fund the battle with drug gangs on a scale commensurate with illegal US drug revenues, while US secretary of state Hillary Clinton acknowledged in Mexico City that “insatiable demand for illegal drugs” north of the border was fuelling violence.

But Cardoso insisted that the policy of confronting the drug gangs without tackling demand for drugs was at a dead end. He said that public discussion of decriminalization of soft drugs had to be encouraged.

“Anti-narcotic policies are firmly rooted in prejudices, fears and ideological views,” he said. “Taboos” that “block the circulation of information” and “segregate” addicts had to be broken down.

“The first step is to acknowledge the failure of current policies and their disastrous consequences.” Longer-term, demand for drugs in the main consumer countries must be reduced, by changing addicts’ status from that of buyers in an illegal market to that of patients in the health system. This approach “does not imply any complacency towards drugs. Treating consumption as a matter of public health is actually the precondition for redirecting police energy and resources to the fight against organized crime.”

Cardoso said the decriminalization of cannabis for personal use should be evaluated “from a public health standpoint”. The hazards are “at worst similar to those caused by alcohol or tobacco” and consumption could be reduced in a similar manner.

Colombia is “the most telling example of the failure of the ‘war on drugs’ paradigm”, Cardoso said. To fight the drug trade, Colombia had “paid a tremendous price in terms of human lives and social disruption”, but levels of production and export of cocaine and cannabis had hardly fallen.

Mexican president Calderon’s “courageous decision to fight the drug cartels” had led to violence that had claimed more than 5000 lives in 2008, Calderon said. Mexico had become the “epicentre” of the drugs problems, a major heroin producer and the largest exporter to the US.

The Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, on which Calderon, Zedillo and Gaviria sit with 14 distinguished public servants and academics, issued a report last month that called for a strategy under which security forces would focus solely on drugs production and trafficking, rather than consumption.

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