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Vision: A Peaceful End to the Drug War

The international war on drugs isn't stopping drug use or trafficking -- but it is ruining lives. Drug policy expert Sanho Tree discusses what we can do differently.

Earlier this month tens of thousands of people marched in Mexico City to protest a war that has left more than 35,000 people dead in the last four and a half years. When elected president of Mexico in 2006, Felipe Calderón vowed to crack down on drug trafficking in his country. With the support of U.S. policies like the Merida Initiative [pdf], he executed a military crackdown that has only increased drug-related violence.

In Colombia, campesino farmers continue to be displaced by a U.S.-backed civil war that has gone on for decades. The pending U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement [pdf] threatens to further displace these farmers by making it impossible to compete with large agricultural producers receiving U.S. subsidies. Cocaine production has become one of very few options for farmers merely trying to feed their families. The Colombian and U.S. governments deal with this by sending military forces to eradicate coca crops by spraying toxic herbicides from helicopters—an imprecise practice that has also eradicated many legal crops and caused health problems in the communities they hit. In spite of the crackdowns, the percentage of cocaine imported to the United States that comes from Colombia has increased from 90 to 97 percent in the last decade.

Understanding the international war on drugs means examining a complex web of interactions. Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, describes the international drug war as one of the most interdisciplinary problems he’s ever encountered. It involves police and prosecutors, drug trafficking gangs and peasant farmers, addicts and casual users. It involves those wealthy enough to consume the drugs, and also those poor enough to risk producing them. It involves everything from the prison, education, and health care systems to policies dealing with foreign aid, economic growth, and military spending. And it involves the high demand coming from the United States: With just five percent of the world's population, our country consumes roughly two-thirds of the world's illicit drugs.

The good news is people are waking up to the counterproductive policies and ideas promoted by the drug wars. Several former Latin American presidents—Fernando Henrique Cardoso, César Gaviria, and Ernesto Zedillo of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico respectively—have publicly condemned the approach of the U.S. and Latin American drug wars and have called for a paradigm shift that “must focus on health and education—not repression.” The evidence against this war is hard to deny—the challenge now lies in putting sustainable alternatives into action.

In his work on drug policy reform, Sanho Tree has traveled throughout Latin America and has seen the devastating effects U.S. policies and influence have abroad. He speaks and writes to educate people on the real costs of the drug war—and how we can move beyond it.

If This Is a War, Who's Winning?

Rebecca Leisher: Recently you've said the drug war in Latin America is rivaling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s going on here—in what sense is this a war, and whose interests are being served?

Sanho Tree: Not many people's interests are served by this. It's not good for the cartels that are fighting each other, it's not good for the state, it's not good for the people. It's not even good for the drug warriors because this is not success, this is not something we can be proud of. But what you have is something driven by the economics of drug prohibition, and it all descends from that. The traffickers are doing what's in their self-interest to do—their bottom line is to maximize profits.

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