That's what César Gaviria, the former president of Colombia, tells The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview following Obama's visit to Latin America.
"Demand for these drugs in the U.S. is what is helping to keep these cartels in business," said President Obama in Mexico City last week, speaking against a backdrop of spiraling drug-fueled violence there. The statement echoed one recently made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and further signaled a change in U.S. attitude toward the drug war. Previously, acknowledging America’s role in creating demand for drugs was politically taboo.
But despite the change in tone, how to squelch this demand remains a point of thorny contention. So far, the Obama administration hasn’t called for any drastic changes to America’s drug policy. In fact, even as he noted the problem of American demand, Obama sought $80 million for Mexico for the purchase of Black Hawk helicopters to fight the cartels.
“It is a failed policy to think that the drug problem will be solved in the supply countries. It has never worked out that way.”
These sorts of enforcements efforts are important, but when it comes to diluting the demand for drugs, the U.S. is missing the point, says the former president of Colombia, César Gaviria, in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast. A central player in the 1990s drug wars, Gaviria was the leader of a country that supplied the bulk of the planet’s cocaine. Now, he says he believes the best way to break the world’s thirst for drugs is to decriminalize them—not just the “soft” ones, but all of them.
Seeking to promote “a profound change in paradigm,” Gaviria has joined with two other former Latin American presidents—Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico—to create the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy. Financially supported by billionaire decriminalization advocate George Soros, the idea for the commission, according to Gaviria, “came from President Cardoso, and we joined him because we are convinced that what has been called the War on Drugs for several decades now has not brought the results that most of us expected.”
The commission was established in March 2008, and presented its findings at a meeting in Rio de Janeiro in February. Its report, " Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift," called for a prompt decriminalization of marijuana and, ultimately, all illicit drugs. Hamid Ghodse, president of the U.N.'s International Narcotics Control Board, dismissed the findings, saying "the board rejects statements calling international conventions [on drugs] a failure.”
But Gaviria has lived the drug war first-hand, and says fighting it was “a very frustrating experience.” He says he believes “it is a failure because there are hundreds of thousands of people jailed, while consumption remains basically unchanged in the U.S. and is growing significantly in Europe.” He also points out that it has been “a source of indiscriminate violence and corruption in Latin America, and is weakening our democratic institutions.”
For the 62-year-old Gaviria, the former secretary general of the Organization of American States, to call for such a radical change as decriminalization is groundbreaking. As president of Colombia from 1990 to 1994, he battled the cartels during some of that country’s most violent years. He led the crackdown that would ultimately bring down the powerful Medellín Cartel and its infamous leader, Pablo Escobar. “The fight against the drug cartels is unavoidable,” Gaviria says. “If you don’t do it, they become too powerful and may even pose a military threat, as we saw in Colombia. But that does not mean that such efforts reduce the flow of drugs.”
During President Obama’s trip to Mexico last week, he and Mexican President Felipe Calderón announced an ambitious bilateral agenda, vowing to crush organized crime in that country. Gaviria, however, thinks that “what is happening in Mexico is very similar” to what he saw in Colombia in the ‘90s. “President Calderón decided to confront the cartels at a moment when they were starting to become too powerful,” he says, “and I am sure the Mexicans will eventually dismantle the main organizations and improve their country’s security.” Yet he is convinced that “drugs will continue to flow into the U.S.,” adding that “it is a failed policy to think that the drug problem will be solved in the supply countries. It has never worked out that way.”
Today, decriminalization is the centerpiece of Gaviria’s philosophy on drug policy. Asked which drugs he thinks should be decriminalized, Gaviria answers, “I think all of them. But, at least, the U.S. and the countries of Latin America should start with marijuana. In this case, it is very clear that putting a person in jail destroys a life while trying to solve a minor problem that can be much better dealt with by doctors, family, churches, or [non-governmental organizations].”
“Most cities in the United States continue to use a program that was first implemented in Los Angeles, but was later abandoned by that city because they considered it ineffective,” he continues, referring to the D.A.R.E. drug-education program. “It consisted of having policemen go to schools to give moral speeches and intimidating messages.”
In 1999, the U.S. government pledged more than $6 billion in aid to Colombia, in the hopes of reducing the production of illegal drugs by 50 percent in six years. According to Gaviria, the initiative, known as Plan Colombia, was “an extraordinary exercise,” which proved “very useful for the security of Colombia, but a failure as an effort to reduce the flow of drugs to the U.S., Europe, and Latin America.”
Gaviria says he believes that “the U.S. should start thinking about dealing with consumption, based on the European model.” He advises that “resources should be moved from law enforcement and the prison system to the health system and to prevention.”
“What we need is a policy that is based on experience and research, not on prejudices, fears, and ideology. And I think there is a better climate to start a debate now in the U.S. The new drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, has plenty of experience dealing with this problem as Seattle’s former police chief. He seems open-minded, and in his first statement he talked about reducing consumption as his most important task. Until now, he has not used the expression ‘War on Drugs.’ Speaking at Northwestern University during his 2004 Senate campaign, President Obama said the War on Drugs was an utter failure. We hope this means that he will be open-minded.”
Xtra Insight: Obama's Demented Drug Policy by Radley Balko.
Constantino Diaz-Duran is a writer living in Manhattan. He has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, El Diario NY and the Orange County Register.