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Change the failed anti-drugs strategy

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In my commentary last week I made the point that the greatest destabilising force confronting the Caribbean and Central America is drug trafficking and its attendant crime, including illegal arms smuggling and distribution, robberies and executions.{{more}}

I called on the United States to take the lead in organising collaborative arrangements with Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean to establish a comprehensive anti-narcotics programme that addresses both supply and demand.

This week, I take the appeal a step further by calling on the governments of the Caribbean Common Market and Community (CARICOM) to collaborate with Latin American governments in engaging the US government in a dialogue to fundamentally change the failed anti drug trafficking policy that has been pursued so far.

I am agreeing with Professor Norman Girvan, former Secretary-General of the Association of Caribbean States, who regards such an engagement as crucial.

My commentary last week was taken from an address I delivered in London to military officers from all over the world. In the course of the address, I had said that “the US, Canadian and European governments have concentrated on cutting supply through eradication and interdiction with limited success, and it is clearly time to re-think this strategy. But, in doing so, the authorities in these countries must collaborate fully with both the producing and transit countries, both of whom are as much the victims of the trade as the countries in which the huge markets reside”.

The failure of a policy principally based on interdiction and eradication is now painfully obvious. The policy not only fails to tackle effectively the problem of demand in countries such as the United States of America and Canada, it also suffers from its imposed character. It is essentially a policy created by the US and imposed on the rest of the area.

This policy, along with the criminalization of the possession of even small amounts of heroin, cocaine and marijuana, has filled the jails of the Caribbean and Latin American countries.

Even worse, a large number of people in St Vincent and the Grenadines and Jamaica are criminalized because they grow or pick marijuana for a living. Largely, these people have no other means of livelihood, and are unqualified or untrained for anything but agricultural labour. In both countries, hundreds of banana farmers have been put out of business by the loss of preferential markets in the European Union, and the argument has been made that they should be allowed to produce marijuana, under regulated and supervised conditions, for the medicinal market. This is being done in some States of the United States, such as California, and is capable of replication in the Caribbean where it would provide employment and contribute to the economy.

The Caribbean alone will hold little sway with the bigger powers in the Hemisphere who, so far, directed the way that the problem of drugs is handled.

But, there is now a growing effort in Latin America for a new and different approach. It started with the Latin-American Commission on Drugs and Democracy co-chaired by former presidents, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), César Gaviria (Colombia) and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico).

The Commission released a report in February in which it called for the decriminalisation of cannabis and criticised “the criminalization of consumption”. Importantly, the report concluded: “The deepening of the debate concerning the policies on drug consumption must be grounded on a rigorous evaluation of the impact of the diverse alternatives to the prohibitionist strategy that are being tested in different countries, focusing on the reduction of individual and social harm”.

When the report was published, Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, observed that: “An ever growing number of Latin American leaders from across the political spectrum recognize that the prohibitionist approach to drug control has wreaked havoc throughout the region, generating crime, violence and corruption on a scale that far exceeds what the United States experienced during alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s. Many believe – and a handful have said publicly – that the better solution would be to abandon drug prohibition and move in the direction of legally regulating the global drug markets that are now illegal.”

Now, the Mexican government has announced that it will be eliminating jail sentences for possession of small amounts of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana, freeing law enforcement officers to focus on the king-pins of the trade. The governments of Brazil and Uruguay have also announced the elimination of measures that penalize people carrying small amounts of drugs and Argentina is reported to be planning the exemption of drug users from the criminal justice system.

The Latin countries have taken bold first steps, but what is needed is collaboration by all Latin American and Caribbean governments and the elaboration of a strategy with the United States and Canada that is jointly devised, and collectively implemented.

As University of the West Indies Professor Alston Chevannes, who chaired a Task Force on Drugs in Jamaica some years ago, recently noted: “Jamaica would like to decriminalise personal use of cannabis but is afraid of US decertification. Other CARICOM countries would probably like to but can’t for the same reason. An international movement that includes big players like Mexico and Brazil would prevent our small countries from being exposed. If the US can be won, then I reckon the UN would have to come to its senses and reconsider the Conventions”.

Prime Minister Patrick Manning of Trinidad and Tobago has lead responsibility for security issues in CARICOM. He can initiate these discussions within CARICOM and with the Rio Group in time to place the issue on the agenda of the scheduled meeting later this year between Caribbean Heads of government and US President Barack Obama.

In conditions of economic decline and increased unemployment, drug trafficking and its attendant other crimes escalate, as they are doing now throughout the region.

Sir Ronald Saunders is a business consultant and former Caribbean diplomat.
Responses and previous commentaries at: www.sirronaldsanders.com

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