Chile and drugs: a debate that requires more coherence

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May 21, 2012
Eduardo Vergara B.

English Translation

Recently, a healthy and necessary debate on drugs has taken place in Chile. Little by little, we see more solid, evidence-based arguments, discussions that leave taboos and moral barriers aside, presentations of transverse positions, and the participation of a diversity of actors, including former heads of state, parliamentarians, academics, experts, consumers, and civil society representatives. We achieved a certain consensus that the head-on war promoted by current models has failed. However, this consensus is not enough: it is time to improve the quality of the debate.

There are three major trends that monopolize this debate: 1) the economic positions that place legalization on a cost/benefit matrix (part of the arguments of Ricardo Lagos and the thesis of Covarrubias and Fisher in El Mercurio); 2) the loyal ones who continue to defend the current prohibition focus as a solution to reducing demand and consumption (SENDA from the Government of Chile and more conservative sectors); and 3) the activists that are seeking to achieve respect for their rights to consume in peace (citizen movements, liberals, etc.). However, just as the war on drugs has been a failure, the current dialogue, which continues to be directed and reduced by large tendencies and ideologies, runs the risk of failing to achieve a change beyond the rhetoric.

First, the economic arguments based on a cost/benefit matrix do shine light on the high costs of the war on drugs and prohibition but are not enough to justify eventual legalization. There is no doubt that removing the business from the narcos would reduce their power to finance terror, that regulating quality would improve health, that the cost of detaining and imprisoning millions of people could be better used to focus on where there are higher returns (education, prevention, and rehabilitation) and that regulation would allow the collection of taxes. The associated costs (not only monetary) of prohibitionist policies are high. In summary, more than 50,000 people have lost their lives in Mexico in 5 years, the prisons are overcrowded by those who are paying disproportionate penalties and, without a doubt, the military intervention to destroy crops and pursue the trafficking gangs has not been fruitful. Those that base their arguments on the costs of this war are correct but their arguments fall short in understanding a problem that requires broader, innovative and interdisciplinary solutions and views and more than anything, questions.

Secondly, there are the defenders of prohibition, the utopia of impeding access to illegal drugs so that human beings stop hurting themselves. This is what Francisca Florenzano (SENDA) argues in an open letter to El Mercurio and responded to in a column by Covarrubias and Fisher that this requires a comprehensive view because “the problem is not drugs, it is the impact that this causes in people.”

What is forgotten, or purposely omitted, is that the logic implemented by the state during these past years has been a failure based on prohibitionist principles that are not necessarily focused on peoples’ welfare. In 2011, there were 77,000 detentions for violations of the law 20.000, 66.5% of which were for possession and 11.9% for consumption. Only 17.3% was for trafficking: we see how the state pursues consumers and not the narcos. The data from previous years are equally alarming and follows similar proportions. Moreover, in highlighting this failure, we cannot forget that Chile continues to be the second highest cocaine consumer in the region. Isn’t it therefore irrational that a government offers help, prevention, and rehabilitation with one hand but at the same time applies the logic of criminalizing and stigmatizing consumers with the other hand? The goals of the government to significantly reduce the consumption and drug trafficking have not been achieved and the interest in the welfare of the people, at least in practice, only remains rhetorical. While the state continues repressing those that consume, the consumer moves more into the shadows, misinformation increases and the traffickers continue making millions by monopolizing the market. Deputy Ward, in reaction to the arguments presented by the former president Lagos on decriminalization also prove the blindness and misinformation that can be used as explanations to continue defending prohibition. While SENDA and the defenders of prohibition continue replicating the models that have already been shown to be unsuccessful in many other countries and while they protect them based on conservativism, the only ones who will win are the narcos.

Finally, there are those that fight for their rights to consume (and to grow) in peace and for legalization. The fight is for a just cause. However, they tend to forget that this cannot be a debate based only on individual liberties, rather, it must be based on the concepts of social welfare. We must be sensitive to different realities: how to explain to someone in an at-risk population that they want to legalize drugs that are destroying and killing their loved ones? Money, for example. This is an edge that the legalization and decriminalization activists should approach with more strategy and responsibility. While for some, decriminalization or legalization is an option to live in peace, for others, legalization means legitimizing the terror. Because often the images are worth more than a thousand words, activism must evolve and must assume that often the images that come from protests and marches do not help the conservatives or maybe many average citizens become more sensitive to debating and thinking about an issue that goes way beyond individual liberties. The message must be wider than a square foot, going above the individual liberties of those that consume and reaching a communitarian focus.

It is the time to include these currents and add to them those that bring the science, the harm reduction, the evidence that are based on a large number of international experiences that have been successful and above all, the political communication strategies that have been fruitful in opening and consolidating serious debates. The attacks exchanged between these actors continue to null a broad and sincere debate and provoke an endless amount of unintended consequences that are ultimately negative. The elites already know that the law 20.000 is absurd, this opinion is shared by politicians, prosecutors, judges, police, and academics. What is unclear is how to advance without this becoming a dialogue of the deaf.

We should therefore begin by asking ourselves some questions: are we interested in changing the focus of current policies? If we are searching for a public health approach to drug policies, wouldn’t it be good for SENDA to depend on the Ministry of Health and not of the Interior? What does the evidence say on the consumption of marijuana? If the costs associated with detentions are as absurd as they are high, would it not be good to decriminalize consumption? But if there are sectors of society that fear legalizing what often terrorizes them, would it not be good to focus on educating the public about the harm of the current models before approaching possible solutions? If the marches and the activism do not manage to positively influence public opinion and instead generates caricatures, would it not be good to change the form?

We are great, it is the moment to debate certain things seriously but above all, it is the moment to not fear asking questions.

View the article in Spanish.

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