More People Using Marijuana is not the Problem

Written by Daniel Salgar Antolínez

English Translation

Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says that the initiatives in Bogota and Uruguay are the first steps in taking away business from the drug traffickers.

When he first started talking about legalization in the 80s, it seemed impossible to people that the initiative would progress. Now it has become a respected idea in the world and there are increasingly more alternatives surfacing to the failed armed war against drug trafficking. This is the first achievement in Ethan Nadelmann’s career. Another is the emergence of harm reduction programs; in other words, “that we accept that drugs are her to stay and we focus on reducing AIDS, hepatitis C, overdoses, 1980, it was though that this was only possible in Holland and now it is almost an official international policy”, he says. An additional achievement is the transformation in public opinion with respect to marijuana legalization, a reaction that was faster than debating gay marriage.

The director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the leading U.S. organization promoting alternatives to the war on drugs, talks to El Espectador about the emergence of initiatives in Latin America.

The Uruguayan government just presented a proposal to Congress to create a monopoly on all aspects of the cannabis market in the country…

It was necessary that a Latin American country dared to do what the Europeans have done. The Dutch led this path at the end of the 70s, with the legalization and regularization of cannabis, and afterwards with the first phases of harm reduction programs. At the end of the 80s y beginning of the 90s, the Swiss took the initiative to start heroin maintenance programs, prescribing pharmaceutical heroin to drug addicts and creating centers offering clean syringes. It was around a decade ago that the Portuguese thought about total decriminalization of drug possession. In the three cases, the results have been very significant and Mujica’s proposal is within this current.

What will be the impacts of the project on the consumption of marijuana and other drugs?

More people using marijuana is not a problem. The problem is more people abusing it and moving on to more dangerous drugs. The only real risk is increase in problematic consumption but one must learn from the Dutch: in the majority of countries, those that sell marijuana also sell cocaine, ecstasy, methamphetamines…in Holland, those that sell marijuana are separate from the rest and this has a positive impact on reducing the possibility of people moving on to harder drugs.

The state will not sell marijuana to minors under 18 years. Is it possible that the black market will concentrate on them?

The group that is least at risk of increasing consumption is the youth because they already have huge access to this drug: almost anyone who is between 16 and 17 years old and is interested in cannabis knows where to get it. The increase might happen among people aged 30 and up because they do not have as easy access and therefore might enjoy marijuana to reduce pains – arthritis, for example – or as an alternative to pharmaceutical drugs.

What is the region doing on regulating other drugs such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines…?

It is very improbable that we will see the legalization of these drugs…there is minimal public support for these initiatives. There are three things that are being considered: the legal regulation of cannabis, treating it more or less like alcohol or maybe tobacco. The second is the Portuguese model: decriminalizing possession of small quantities of drugs, which has been very successful. The third, which is the most radical, is doing what the Europeans have done with heroin maintenance programs. This consists of establishing clinics for addicts that are not ready to stop using drugs; there they can obtain pharmaceutical heroin and other services. These experiences have been very successful in reducing disease, death, crime, and arrests, without increasing addiction.

How to apply these models in Latin America?

This is the challenge. The basic objective is to understand that for those that are absolutely determined to obtain their drugs it is better – also for society – that they get them from a legal source. If the supply can be given to this minority of problematic addicts, maybe the rest of the people who use recreationally still have to go to the black market, but the market would be reduced by around 50 or 70%. It is not an easy policy, it has not been carried out, it is risky because there must be controls so that addicts who obtain the drugs do not sell them on, but ultimately is where we are headed.

When governments implement these projects, could a possible response from the powerful cartels like in Mexico be to generate more violence?

The drug traffickers cannot compete with legal companies that pay taxes and have laws to defend their products. The competitive advantage of the narcos is the use of intimidation, violence, and corruption, not the quality of production and distribution of the market. They would probably try to take control of the distribution of the business at a local level but the bulk of the money is in the large scale distribution and retail, which are the parts that a government can manage more effectively. The criminal organizations are already diversifying but there is no business more profitable than drugs.

How to open markets of drugs apart from marijuana?

The Bolivian sodas that contain a bit of coca are no more addictive than Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola contained cocaine until 1900 and as far as we know, there was not a massive problem of addiction to the drink. One of our slogans is “put coca back into Coca-Cola”. Whichever substance that is less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco should at least be considered a candidate for legal regulation. Many scientific studies show that the majority of illegal drugs are no more harmful than alcohol and tobacco.

Bolivia has asked for a review on the prohibition of coca…

Bolivia has been daring enough to say something that is certain: that the criminalization and prohibition of coca in the United Nations Single Convention is not based on science or public health but on racial prejudices against the indigenous. Showing that if the convention cannot be reformed, no one will respect it is a daring move on their part.

How do you see the proposal to create consumption centers made by the mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro?

It is very related to the European and Canadian tradition and it is what is needed, perhaps first as a research project. That is how the heroin maintenance programs and the safe injection centers began in Europe: the government gave permission to the universities and other institutions to begin developing it and experimenting with 500  people and measuring the impact. When its effectiveness in reducing crime and helping addicts was made evident, the research project was transformed into government policy. There is no reason to think that this only works in Europe.

Individual progress is key

For Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, although the criminal organizations operate in a transnational manner, before formulating regional policies to combat drug trafficking, experimentation with diverse alternatives is needed in different countries. Nadelmann uses the example of the US: while the federal government maintains a firm position on prohibition of medical marijuana, he began promoting it in different states since 1996. Afterwards, changes within the states began pressuring the government: “now we have some votes in Congress, even though it still is not the majority”. The difficulties in reaching a regional change stem from the need for consensus and there will always be someone in disagreement. This occurred with the proposal of Otto Perez, the president of Guatemala, who sent his vice-president to promote legalization in Central America at the same time as the US Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, was in the region saying the contrary. At the end, Perez’s initiative was successful but there is still no consensus. For Nadelmann, the individual initiatives being proposed in Uruguay and Bogota are the first steps needed to move towards regional polices that would take away the drug market from the drug traffickers.

View the article in Spanish.

El Espectador, Colombia
Drug Trafficking in Latin America