A recent story in the New York Times told readers about how President José Mujica of Uruguay proposes to deal with his country’s drug problem. The former political prisoner and maverick, whose preferred mode of transport is a 30-year-old Volkswagen Beetle, wants to create the world’s first state regulated and controlled marijuana monopoly.
The goal is to cut out the dealers and importers, who are behind virtually all drug-related violence. Mujica wants to “require users to sign up for registration cards to keep foreigners away . . . and to track and limit Uruguayans’ purchases (to perhaps 40 joints a month, officials say).”
There are other proposals—such as regulating the amount of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis—but one unifying goal: to limit, if not eliminate, the societal harm caused by the illegality of the marijuana market—what drug policy and public health wonks call “harm reduction.”
As the New York Times points out, Uruguay isn’t the only Latin American country contemplating the previously unthinkable when it comes to drugs. In Brazil and Argentina, “decriminalizing everything from heroin and cocaine to marijuana” is under consideration, the thinking being that this “could be the best way to allow the police to focus on traffickers instead of addicts.”
Nearly 6600 kilometers to the north of Montevideo, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has raised the subject of drug legalization. He told CNN that “it is important for us to have other alternatives. . . . We have to talk about decriminalization of the production, the transit and, of course, the consumption.”
Unlike his Uruguayan counterpart, Perez is not an ex-hippie driving around in a beat-up VW. He’s a former general and director of Military Intelligence. He ran for president on a platform that promised to step up the military fight against the drug cartels.
What happened? In a word, reality. Guatemala, like its much larger neighbor to the north, has seen its murder rate skyrocket in recent years. And as in both Mexico today and the United States during the 1980s and early 1990s, the rise is directly attributable to the struggle to control the illegal drug trade.
As Perez’s predecessor, Alvaro Colom, said, “Eight killed per ton (of cocaine) passing through Guatemala is a lot of blood. If you pass through Honduras, there are 20 murders, and if we add it up, a ton of cocaine has too high a human cost. . . .”
The key words—besides “killed” and “blood,” of course—in Colom’s statement is “passing through.” “Passing through” to where? Need we ask?
In case we do, the American Embassy in Guatemala City was kind enough to spell it all out for us: In response to Perez’s decision to “put the issue back on the table,” it replied, “The United States continues to oppose such measures because evidence shows that our shared drug problem is a major public health and safety threat.”
Calling what’s happening in Central America and Mexico “our shared drug problem” is a little like a driver who just ran over a pedestrian on sidewalk referring to “our shared automobile safety problem.” Not to put too fine a point on it, the insatiable American appetite for drugs is a necessary, albeit not sufficient, cause of the drug-related bloodshed that has Latin American leaders thinking what was previously unthinkable.
It’s a major reason why Mexicans held their collective noses and returned the notoriously corrupt Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) to power a month ago. “The 60,000 dead, the more than 20,000 who've disappeared, the hundreds of thousands of people displaced, wounded and hunted, the tens of thousands of widows and orphans that this stupid war against drugs is costing us” made them ready to embrace any party that might bring “this stupid war against drugs” to an end.
Speaking of “stupid,” Mexicans fully understand that the PRI’s most likely method of ending the bloodshed is to reach an accommodation with the cartels. As Ioan Grillo tells us in his indispensable "El Narco," it wouldn’t be the first time. In fact, it was former president Felipe Calderon’s decision, at the urging of the United States, to go after the cartels that turned an irritant—at least from the Mexican point of view—into an insurgency-in-all-but-name. It turned our drug abuse problem into Mexico’s national security problem.
Again, it’s important to keep in mind the difference between a necessary cause and a sufficient one. Without our appetite for drugs, the drug-related violence that has Latin Americans clutching at alternatives would not have happened. But that’s not the same as saying that, therefore, it is entirely our fault. Some of the societies, notably Mexico and Colombia, have, to borrow aphrase from David Cronenberg, a history of violence where men with guns vie for the right to be the bellicose ******* in charge. (Note: If you are offended by vulgarity, don’t click on the link. The song has no lyrics, or even melody or harmony, but the title is a doozy.)
Yet another “again”: None of this absolves the United States from responsibility in this violence. It was our appetite for drugs that turned Joaquin “Chapo” (Shorty) Guzman from a relatively small-time marijuana and opium distributor into, by Forbes’ estimate, the 41st, 60th, and 55th most powerful man in the world in 2009, 2010 and 2011 respectively. (I wouldn’t bet on his dropping in 2012.) That appetite is a large part of the reason that Los Zetas went from being a small group of Mexican Army deserters to what our government calls the “most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico.”
As President Mujica might add, the problem is also the way we have chosen to fight our “war on drugs.” The Obama administration, like its predecessors, talks tough when it comes to how other countries address our “shared drug problem”—you might say that they are willing to fight down to the last Mexican—but at home, not so much.
This is the same administration that began only last October to try and rein in what the Christian Science Monitor called “California’s out-of-control medical marijuana industry.” Even that “crackdown” was accompanied by reassurances from the U.S. Attorney that “the crackdown on medical pot establishments in the Golden State was a collective decision by the four U.S. attorneys in California and not the result of any directive from Washington. . . .”
If I were a Latin American leader, I would wonder why such reassurances were necessary. Actually, I’ll ask: Why were such reassurances necessary?
I think it’s because of our ambivalence about recreational drug use. We live in a country where “reality television” aficionados can watch “American Weed,” which chronicles the doings of “medicinal” marijuana vendors in Colorado. We live in a country where a prominent and influential member of the commentariat can get busted for marijuana possession on federal land and not only have the charges dropped but also not have it held against him in his application to become a naturalized American citizen.
I don’t care about the marijuana vendors in Colorado or anywhere else for that matter. And I’m happy that the charges against Sullivan were dropped and that the incident didn’t affect his immigration status. (I like Sullivan. I even own an autographed copy of “Virtually Normal.”) What I care about is that, when it comes to drugs, we have outsourced virtue. We use our drugs, maybe even on national television, and let other people die to save us from ourselves—but not before blaming our predicament.[i]
And then we have the [insert well-known Spanish word for part of the male anatomy] to lecture other countries about how they should deal with the problem that is partly of our making. We are committed to fighting the “war on drugs” down to the last Mexican, Guatemalan, Uruguayan[ii], etc.
One great thing about not believing in American exceptionalism is that I get to cheer when people like Mujica and Perez say “lo siento, pero no mas.”
[i] I note that California voted against legalizing marijuana, which, from the Mexican perspective beats a stick in the eye. Still, even Americans who profess to be “tough on drugs” change their tune when it’s their kid who gets busted.
[ii] As the Times pointed out, Guzman’s reach extends to Uruguay. That reach is financed by the proceeds from drug sales in El Norte.
Roberto Rivera is senior writer for BreakPoint.
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