Report Blasts War On Drugs

A report issued this week by the Global Commission on Drug Policy labels the U.S. war on drugs a failure. The commission encourages countries not to think about it as a war on drugs, but as an effort that includes social and health problems as well.

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The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. That's the blunt opening line of a report issued last week by an international commission, convened by the U.N., to study the effects of the drug trade on people and societies.

The report, by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, describes as futile efforts to eradicate drug production, and criticize policies that target drug users. It recommends sweeping reassessments such as the decriminalization of some drugs, and more money directed at treatment and prevention of drug use.

NPR's Jason Beaubien has covered drug policy issues in Latin America, and the brutal violence between drug cartels. He joins us from Mexico City. Good morning, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Good morning.

LYDEN: So the commission encourages countries not to think about this as a war on drugs - a term that dates all the way back to the Nixon administration - and says it's really not just about crime. This is a departure.

BEAUBIEN: It is very much a departure. This report really is attacking these -sort of main thinking, at least here in Mexico, you know, in a place where President Felipe Calderon has directly confronted the cartels, both with the military and the police, and attempted to just beat them down. This report is basically saying that that policy doesn't work, particularly on a global level.

LYDEN: And not just Mexico but other parts of Central America as well, right?

BEAUBIEN: That's right. I mean, in other parts of Central America, there's also been attempts to directly confront the cartels with the military, with the police. Guatemala has basically lost parts of its northern territory to these cartels. And this report is basically saying that that's going to happen somewhere else. Even if Guatemala managed to defeat them, that they would just move to Honduras, or they'd move to El Salvador.

LYDEN: Speaking of El Salvador, that's another place that's tried the criminal tactic, hasn't it?

BEAUBIEN: It has, and El Salvador has pretty much thrown its national police at the drug cartels when they try to come in. But this report also gets at some of the other problems that are happening in Central America.

In El Salvador in particular, there's been a lot more drug trafficking going through there. And in the past, it used to be that these drugs just moved all the way through. But as the cartels are hiring more local people, it's led to other problems. This is a bit of tape from a very high-ranking police commissioner in El Salvador.

Mr. HOWARD AUGUSTO COTTO (Deputy Director for Investigation, Salvador National Police): The Mexican cartels are not paying with money, no. They're paying with drugs.

BEAUBIEN: That's Howard Augusto Cotto. He's the deputy director for investigation with the Salvador National Police. And basically he's saying, so what's happening is that more drugs are flowing onto the streets of El Salvador and causing all of the additional problems that go along with that - more crack addicts, more social problems, more health problems - and that this is one of the effects of the drug trade that normally is just moving drugs from Colombia all the way up to the United States, where the primary market is.

LYDEN: Jason, one of the things this panel says is that governments should decriminalize the use of some drugs - like cannabis, or marijuana, for example. What about that?

BEAUBIEN: That's an interesting thing to be brought up, but from the perspective of Mexico or from Central America, the whole decriminalization debate is something that's happening in the United States and in Europe. It doesn't really matter here. Only if it's decriminalized in the place where the big markets are, is it going to make a difference.

And one of the issues is that even marijuana - which, you know, is viewed in many places in the United States as being very soft; it's not really a hard drug - here, it's sort of the same as cocaine or heroin when viewed from a trafficking perspective. I mean, the cartels are just as brutal in killing their rivals over moving some marijuana as they are over moving some cocaine.

So the problems associated with these drugs remain here whether it's marijuana, or whether it's something much harder like cocaine or heroin.

LYDEN: That's interesting because you have on this commission some really luminary names, but also former presidents and public intellectuals in places associated with the drug problem - like Colombia, like Mexico; Brazil, for example. Why do you think the focus is as it is now?

BEAUBIEN: I think there's a growing sense that things just aren't working, particularly when you look at Mexico. You know, President Calderon came in -this has been the main focus of his administration for the last four years. And the death toll every year just keeps going up, in terms of drug-related killing here. There isn't a sense that things are safer.

So all of the objectives of the drug war - of reducing the flow of drugs, that's not happening; clearly, reducing the amount of violence, that's clearly not happening. So I think there's a growing sense that a new approach needs to be taken.

LYDEN: Has the Calderon government, or any other, responded to this report so far?

BEAUBIEN: Yes. Calderon's top security official, Alejandro Poire, came out within hours and denounced this report, and said that Mexico is not going to change its course, that Mexico is not going to back off from attacking these cartels. And basically, his argument was that if they're not trafficking drugs, they're going to be trafficking people, they're going to be in extortion rackets, they're going to be in kidnapping, and that we just have to go after these criminal groups.

LYDEN: Jason, one thing interesting about this commission is when you run down the list - and we've got names like George Schultz and Kofi Annan and Paul Volcker - there's no real law enforcement represented on this commission. I thought that was interesting.

BEAUBIEN: It's absolutely true that there wasn't some law-enforcement presence on this report. It was even critical of how law-enforcement officials have been sort of involved in the debate. They're saying that narcotics is not about just law enforcement - it's about safety; it's about health - and that there needs to be a much broader look at how to attack this problem.

LYDEN: Jason Beaubien is NPR's Mexico City correspondent, and he joined me on the line from Mexico City. Jason, thank you very much.

BEAUBIEN: It was good to talk with you.

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LYDEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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