'A step in the right direction': How Colombia's president plans to end 'the failed War on Drugs'

'A step in the right direction': How Colombia's president plans to end 'the failed War on Drugs'
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Before the rise of the Sinaloa Cartel’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in Mexico, Latin America’s most notorious drug lord was Medellín Cartel founder Pablo Escobar (who was killed in 1993). Colombia is one of the world’s top producers of cocaine, and yet, the U.S. government and the Colombian government have long been major allies in the War on Drugs—which critics on both the left and the right have been denouncing as an abysmal failure.

Critics of the War on Drugs include not only liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), but also, right-wing libertarians such as former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and 2020 Libertarian Party presidential nominee Jo Jorgensen. These critics have long argued that the War on Drugs and the mass incarceration that goes with it haven’t ended drug use, but have encouraged drug-related violence.

One Colombian official who believes that his country needs to seriously rethink the War on Drugs is Colombia’s new president, Gustavo Petro. Christy Thornton, a professor of sociology and Latin America studies at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, examines Petro’s efforts in an op-ed/guest essay published by the New York Times on September 7. And she wonders how helpful — or unhelpful — officials in Washington, D.C. will be to the new Colombian president.

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“Colombia, one of the world’s top producers of cocaine, has long been a key partner in Washington’s failed War on Drugs,” Thornton explains. “But Gustavo Petro, the country’s newly sworn-in president, has made good on a campaign pledge to take the country in a different direction. Last month, he said he would end forced eradication of coca, and support legislation to decriminalize and regulate cocaine sales in an effort to undercut illicit markets and the profit motive that drives them.”

Thornton continues, “Here at home, the Biden Administration has also signaled an important shift. In April, Dr. Rahul Gupta, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, introduced a new strategy that directs federal resources to harm-reduction services. The aim is to prevent deaths from opioid overdose by increasing access to medical treatment and addiction recovery programs, and promoting alternatives to incarceration for minor drug-related offenses.”

The U.S., per capita, incarcerates more of its population than any other country in the world, and the War on Drugs has been a major factor. Yet addiction continues to plague areas that addicts have been flocking to in big numbers, such as the Kensington area of Philadelphia and an area of Boston that locals have dubbed “the Methadone Mile.”

Thornton notes that “U.S.-led international drug control efforts” have been “a staggering failure, contributing to violence, degradation and displacement in places like Colombia, which largely export cocaine.”

READ MORE: War on Drugs opponents applaud Biden for pardons or commutations of nonviolent offenders

“It has also fueled the move toward synthetic opioids like fentanyl, driving overdose deaths here at home,” Thornton observes. “The Biden Administration’s new forward-thinking national policies are a step in the right direction, but the president must go further and end the global drug war.”

Thornton adds, “In the 1980s, the United States began working closely with the Colombian National Police to reduce illegal drug production and trafficking, including by eradicating coca fields and intercepting smugglers. Then, in 1999, President Bill Clinton signed into law Plan Colombia as violence and drug trafficking escalated and a concern about guerrilla influence grew. The plan sought to stabilize the nation and undermine drug production, among other things. But the militarized crackdown failed to stamp out cocaine production.”

The Johns Hopkins professor concludes her op-ed/essay by stressing that abolishing the War on Drugs needs to be an international effort.

“‘It is time for a new international convention that accepts that the War on Drugs has failed,’ President Petro said during his inauguration speech, echoing an argument that has been made by other Latin American leaders in recent years,” Thornton writes. “Promoting policies that foster violence overseas will do nothing to reverse the trend toward an increasingly unsafe drug supply here at home. The Biden Administration has taken key steps to address our failures here at home — but to find lasting success, it must end our drug war abroad, as well.”

READ MORE: Michelle Alexander: White men get rich from legal pot, black men stay in prison

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