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Why Obama Must Join The Drug War Debate in Colombia

At a summit in Colombia this week, Obama will have the opportunity to have an honest conversation about our failed drug policy and how desperately we need reform.
 
 
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 All wars end. Eventually. Even the war on drugs – resilient for so long – is starting to show signs of exhaustion. It is 42 years since President Nixon introduced the  Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. The act set out to reduce or eliminate the production, supply and consumption of illegal drugs. A year later, after a report revealed a heroin epidemic among US servicemen in Vietnam, the Nixon administration coined the phrase "war on drugs".

Nixon is cited as the architect of this war. That is misleading. The 1970 act was little more than a continuation of the drug policies first enacted by Woodrow Wilson's Narcotics Tax in 1914. Nixon lent the battle verve and rhetoric, but it was the Reagan administration in the 80s that left a lasting legacy. A year after taking office in 1981, President Reagan declared: "We're taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many drug efforts; we're running up a battle flag."

The Reagan administration brought in a series of laws that introduced mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offences. This resulted in an unprecedented rise in convictions and led to an explosion in America's prison population that continues to this day.
 
Soon, the war became an international one, as successive American governments prosecuted it across borders. They offered their neighbours in South and Central America financial and military aid to help destroy supply routes into America. US drug agents fanned out across Latin America and worked with local law enforcement officials.
 
The international dimension took a startling turn in 1989 when President Bush used military force to oust President Noriega of Panama, whom he accused of drug trafficking. Noriega was convicted in America and spent 20 years in prison. This was a largely hidden war, with the US deploying huge numbers of military personnel and donating vast sums of money to Latin American governments, most notably in Colombia and latterly in Mexico.
 
Throughout this period, America's position as the dominant ideological force in prosecuting the war on drugs went unchallenged. They took the war south and met little resistance. Often, they were welcomed by countries that accepted help in combating drug cartels.
 
But that mood is starting to shift and America's position is now being challenged, increasingly and vociferously, by its neighbours in South and Central America. They have seen drugs, and the attendant war, pulverise and very nearly break a succession of countries in the region. There is a growing sense that the "drug-producing" nations in Latin America are bearing the brunt of the violence while the "drug-consuming" nations (principally America and in Europe) remain relatively unscathed.
 
This message will be delivered with force during the Summit of the Americas, which will be attended by the leaders of 36 countries, including President Obama, later this week in Colombia.  As our story reveals, all the countries of the Americas will sit down and, for the first time, have a formal discussion about the war on drugs. They will try to reach a formal agreement to study new, evidence-based approaches to tackling drugs – everything from a new war on drugs to complete legalisation. This is a watershed moment.
 
And not before time. Because, as wars go, this one hasn't had too many victories. It hasn't even worked well in America, its birthplace. When Nixon announced the war on drugs in 1971, the US kept just 0.2% of its population behind bars. Today, it incarcerates close to 0.8% of its population – 2.25 million Americans. A further 5 million are on parole or probation. In total, more than 7 million people in the US are under correctional supervision. If they were all gathered together they could form the 13th biggest state of the union by population.
 
This is the highest percentage of adults imprisoned anywhere in the world. These figures matter because the mandatory sentencing for drugs misuse has contributed hugely to the rise of the US prison population. In 2006, nearly one in eight prisoners was behind bars for marijuana-related offences. By 2003, more than half of females in US prisons were serving sentences for drug convictions. Approximately half-a-million people are in prison for a drug offence in the US today compared with 40,000 in 1981.
 
In the US, it isn't a war on drugs any longer – it has become a war on drug users. While drugs continue to be freely available, and consumption shows no signs of decline, this war has criminalised millions of Americans and helped create an underclass who often fail to gain re-entry into American society.
 
Barack Obama recognised the war's failings when he announced:  "The war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalise our marijuana laws… we need to rethink how we operate the drug wars." But that was in January 2004. Since then, he has shown little appetite to engage in the debate despite the fact that the drug war in America hasn't been a conspicuous success. The  National Survey on Drug Use estimates that nearly 23 million Americans are illicit drug users. That is 8.9% of its adult population, up from 2008-09 when the rate was 8%. The number of marijuana users has gone up from 14.4 million in 2007 to 17.4 million in 2010.
 
Even the so-called successes of the war begin to pale on further scrutiny. Yes, Plan Colombia (the White House-backed military campaign to rout cartels) has had an impact, facilitating a new civic and economic resurgence in that country. But in neighbouring Peru, coca growing increased every year for the last five years as cartels sought refuge elsewhere. And as trafficking routes were disrupted in Colombia, the cartels moved their drugs through Central America. Over the last five years, 47,000 people have died in Mexico's vicious drug wars.
 
As President Santos of Colombia told this paper last year: "Our success means more problems for others. There's the balloon effect." Meaning that the problem is simply displaced, to another country – or even another continent, as is the case of West African countries now plagued by drug cartels.
 
Voices from Latin America appealing for a new international discussion on drugs are getting louder and more numerous. President Perez Molina of Guatemala, the latest country to find itself in the front line on drugs,  writing in this paper, says of the failure of the war on drugs: "This situation led me to ask myself some pretty obvious questions: isn't it true that we have been fighting the war on drugs all these decades? Then, how on earth is drug consumption higher, production greater, and why is trafficking so widespread?"
 
They are reasonable questions. And they are at the forefront of the thoughts of many of those who will attend the Summit of the Americas. The mood in Latin America is moving decisively against the idea that the war on drugs is the only approach to the trade in illicit drugs. For them, this has become a matter of national security as large cartels threaten political institutions – by corrupting public officials, politicians, the judiciary and the police.
 
The Observer has, for many years, argued that we need a new discussion about the war on drugs. In a significant intervention in the debate in this paper last year,  President Santos, host of the summit, spoke eloquently about the price his country had paid as a drug-producing nation servicing the demand for drugs in consumer nations. He said: "The world needs to discuss new approaches… we are still thinking within the same framework as we have done for the last 40 years."
 
Patience is wearing thin in Latin America. President Calderon of Mexico recently hit out at the US when he said: "We are living in the same building. And our neighbour is the largest consumer of drugs in the world and everybody wants to sell him drugs through our doors and windows."
 
And the US should bear in mind that the balance of power is shifting in the Americas. As countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Brazil grow in economic power and confidence – and see the carnage of the war on drugs as limiting their growth prospects – they are less likely to be lectured by their friends in the north.
 
The landmark article by the Guatemalan president is another sign of the shift in the debate. He suggests we stop looking at this issue from an ideological position but, instead, treat drug consumption as a public health issue. It is perfectly possible to agree that drugs are bad for our health without wanting to prohibit them.
 
As President Molina says: "Nobody in the world has ever suggested eradicating sugar cane plantations, or potatoes and barley production, in spite of them being raw materials used in the production of alcoholic drinks. Similarly, nobody has ever advocated the fumigation of tobacco plantations. Yet we all know that alcoholism and tobacco cause thousands of deaths every year all over the world."
 
Some Latin American politicians are openly discussing the possibility of a regulated market for drugs. There are precedents. The sales of firearms, alcohol, tobacco and legal drugs are subject to varying degrees of regulation. A regulated market would move the market out of the murderous, barbarous hands of the cartels and into the free market. It would facilitate the introduction of the type of public health programmes that have been so effective in reducing smoking. And it could regulate the strength and even safety of many drugs.
 
The debate on the drug war is shifting and America is in danger of being left behind. President Obama has shown signs that he recognises the emergence of a growing political consensus arguing for a new discussion. Last year, he acknowledged that America has become too focused on "arrests and interdiction" and has spent too little time on how to "shrink demand" through education. But these are modest steps. He needs to send a clear signal that they are prepared to embrace a wide-ranging discussion to include a range of options (outlined above) which would then be investigated in an evidence-based approach.
 
Where better for President Obama to send that signal than in Colombia – a country that bears the savage scars of the war on drugs?