Latin American states are dramatically changing their strategy on illegal drugs — by ceasing to make war on drug users. Earlier this year, former presidents of Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia published a report calling for more humane policies on drugs, and now Argentina’s Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, has ruled that it is unconstitutional to punish people for consuming marijuana. Mexico has already stopped prosecuting users for possessing small amounts of a range of drugs from marijuana to heroin, and is introducing treatment instead of punishment. The former Brazilian president Fernando Cardoso says the war on drugs has failed. The military-style crackdown on drugs in the Americas was started four decades ago by United States President Richard Nixon; as the U.S.-driven crackdowns have toughened, smugglers and gangs have grown progressively more inventive. Dutch customs officers have found cylinders of drugs welded to ships’ hulls below the waterline, and recently the Mexican navy found a tonne of cocaine in the frozen carcasses of sharks aboard a container ship. Drugs have also been transported in sealed beer cans, furniture, and religious statuary. Indian traffickers have even stuffed drugs into cricket pads for export.
There is no doubting the damage that illegal drugs and the trade in them do throughout the world. In Mexico alone, some very senior police officers and other officials work for different gangs and cartels; even a U.S. soldier has been charged with contract killing in the Mexican drugs trade. The border between Mexico and Texas in the U.S. is said to be a river of drugs in one direction and a river of iron, meaning weapons, in the other. The U.S. administration proposes to use herbicides to destroy dense cane along the Rio Grande — the border with Mexico — for better visibility. Critics have drawn parallels with the U.S. use of the defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam. The new Latin American strategy does not as yet amount to decriminalisation; it is a humanitarian move which differentiates between personal use and trafficking; it may therefore help keep drug users out of the clutches of traffickers and dealers; and it could release resources for targeting traffickers. It also goes farther than some previous attempts at harm-reduction policies. In the United Kingdom in 1997, the Labour government initiated harm-reduction measures by way of treatment-type court orders, but dropped the policy following one adverse tabloid headline. The recent Latin American moves are much more robust, have received widespread approval among governments in the region, and will be watched with interest the world over.