Interview: Dr. Jaime Malamud-Goti

Philip Smith interviews former Argentine Solicitor General Jamie Malamud-Goti about his involvement in the upcoming conference, 'Out from the Shadows: Ending Drug Prohibition in the 21st Century'.
The Road to Mrida: Dr. Jaime Malamud-Goti, former Argentine Solicitor General

Jaime Malamud-Goti, former Solicitor General of the nation of Argentina (the equivalent of the Attorney General position in the US) drew international notice during the administration of President Raul Alfonsin, when he managed the human rights trials of members of the Argentine junta that kidnapped, tortured and murdered thousands of Argentines (and others) during the military dictatorship's "dirty war" against "subversives" in the late 1970s.

Since then, Malamud has authored two books, one on state terrorism in Argentina and one on the drug trade in Bolivia, and pursued a career as a legal scholar and ethicist. A MacArthur and Guggenheim fellow, he currently teaches morality, ethics and criminal law at the University of Palermo and is involved with the founding of a new school of law at St. Andrew's University in Scotland. Malamud-Goti is a member of the "Out from the Shadows: Ending Drug Prohibition in the 21st Century," conference steering committee.

Week Online: How did you develop an interest in drug policy?

Jaime Malamud-Goti: When I was Solicitor General under Alfonsin, he also appointed me head of the Argentine drug policy apparatus. I guess you could say I was the drug czar. Even though in those days we concentrated more on public health and education, I was also in charge of the country's drug law enforcement. I began to become aware of the issues involved in the question of drug policy. Back then the number of drug addicts in Argentina was relatively low. But since then, even while different administrations have altered the emphasis toward law enforcement and the stopping of contraband, the problem drug use has been rising in Argentina. My training in ethics and political philosophy also drew me to consider alternatives to the war on drugs.

WOL: In your book, "Smoke and Mirrors: The Paradox of the Drug War," you examined the impact of the war on drugs on Bolivia. What did you find?

Malamud-Goti: I had been challenging the drug war from a political philosophical standpoint, and I realized that a philosophical approach was not working. So I looked for something empirical. I found that drug repression in Bolivia has been lethal and destructive, and its results paradoxical. The criminal law is used to repress deviants, but when you have something as high-yielding as coca in Bolivia, the criminal law is powerless to stop it. So the Bolivian and US governments -- the US funds most Bolivian anti-drug activities -- try to repress coca and they create the paradox of a powerful mass movement, a political opposition. Evo Morales [leader of the Chapare coca growers' federation] is a national hero now and a powerful political figure. I don't think that is what the drug war anticipated.

But there are other paradoxes. Hardly anyone in Bolivia believes it is immoral to produce coca, but the government sets out to smash it. Then there is the paradox of success. The Americans measure success in drug repression in terms of arrests and pounds seized. But when the industry faltered here because US pressure deflected drug buyers from Brazil and Colombia and Peru, the price dropped, nobody sold, and activity was low. Arrests and seizures dropped, too, and that upset the Americans. They told Bolivian police they would lose their bonuses if they didn't make better numbers. How irrational! Then there is the paradox of competing anti-drug agencies. You would think the more drug fighters, the more efficient the drug war, right? In Bolivia, while the DEA was supervising the repression of coca, the CIA was profiting off drug laboratories and using the proceeds to hire Argentine and other Latin American military officers to teach the Contras all those lessons they learned in the dirty war.

WOL: So, do you take a position on drug legalization?

Malamud-Goti: Yes, I believe we should legalize and regulate, but probably in stages. First, we should take marijuana out of play, and then we should decriminalize use, and then legalize the traffic. You still want to be able to go after big drug smugglers just as you go after smugglers of other goods, but petty dealing should be legalized, and the sooner the better. Prosecuting people for drugs is a violation of fundamental rights and dignity.

WOL: How did you get involved with Out from the Shadows?

Malamud-Goti: I'm not sure. Former Colombian Attorney General Gustavo de Greiff suggested my name. But I think a conference like this is critical. The war on drugs is so wrong and so destructive that it demands a collective political response. This conference, and others like it, are the beginning of that process. But the drug war is a self-sustaining enterprise, and I fear we have a long road ahead of us. I haven't decided what I will say at the conference. Maybe something derived from my Bolivia research. Maybe something from the perspective of political philosophy. I guess I'll surprise the audience. I may surprise myself.
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