Opinion: The war on drugs: our own Vietnam

POSTED: 02/13/12 7:37 PM

The war on drugs is the new Vietnam: it is a war nobody will ever win, no matter how much resources the international community throws at it. We have argued before on this page that the extremely expensive war on drugs is a lost case and that it is time to evaluate the situation.

This is exactly what the president of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina is doing. He said this weekend that he wants to propose to Central-American government leaders to collectively legalize drugs.

Molina’s country is feeling the effect of drugs-fighting efforts in the Caribbean. Especially the land-based radar systems in Aruba and Curacao have made South-American drug lords change their routes. Increasingly they transport their drugs over land through Central America to the United States.

This has made Central America the battlefield of competing drugs cartels. That battlefield is now of course rife with violent crime and Molina has had enough. Per 100,000 inhabitants, 45 are murdered every year. Adjusted for population size, St. Maarten is not doing much better with 17 murders last year on an estimated population of 54,000.

Drugs criminality keeps our law enforcement quite busy but on a much smaller scale. On balance the effect is the same: the efforts to keep some grip on the drugs trade and to investigate and prosecute drugs-related murders put an enormous pressure on available resources. But at the end of the day, the result looks an awful lot like a big fat zero.

Okay, do not misunderstand this statement: we have put a bunch of guys behind bars who are suspects in four drugs-related murders last year. They will stand trial, and then they will or they won’t be convicted. But for the drug lords it is business as usual, because all these people are expandable.

It is rather simple to explain why drugs-related criminality is so violent and so widespread: the profit margins are huge and the risks are high. On the one hand those risks stem from competition – and drug dealers are not exactly skilled in best business practices. They don’t come with lawyers to settle a dispute, but they show up with assault rifles and assorted other weaponry. The profit margins are high, because the price of cocaine is driven by the fact that it is a so-called banned substance; it is illegal. Demand pushes the price up even further.

We’re not making a case here for free drugs for all. The effect on the human body is rather ugly, and in the end this affects the general health of a population, a country’s productivity and its competitive edge in the global economy.

But we also think that drug abuse is partly caused by the simple fact that cocaine (and in many countries marijuana as well) are illegal.

It would be much cheaper if governments decided to legalize drugs – the same way they allow cigarettes on the market – and label the products similarly. Next to smoking kills supermarkets and other retailers would get products on their shelves with entertaining labels like sniffing cocaine blows your brains out – or something to that effect.

The price of the product would go down, criminals would lose their interest because profit margins evaporate, and the state could even benefit with cocaine and ganja-taxes. Citizens who want to blow their brains out with cocaine are welcome to do so. After all, smokers have the free run of the country as well, so why would we treat cocaine users any different? Just make sure that their healthcare insurance becomes so awfully expensive that this alone would be reason to forego the white line.

Maybe legalizing drugs will create unemployment: all those drug task forces will be without a job. But their expertise is sorely needed elsewhere. They could give law-abiding citizens a new sense of security by investing time and energy in solving those mundane crimes that ruin their lives – like car theft and burglary. Maybe it’s not as exciting as going after the big bad boys with their Hummers and their bling bling, but communities would benefit tremendously from this new approach.

Molina will discuss his initiative with Mauricio Funes, the president of El Salvador today. The Dutch quality newspaper NRC Handelsblad noted immediately that Molina’s plan does not stand a chance because the United States won’t hear about it.

But the Americans cannot have an argument with Molina’s position that all the resources that have been thrown at the war on drugs have yielded absolutely nothing. Sooner or later some country will decide to truly legalize drugs, and then others will follow – freeing up scarce resources for initiatives and services that benefit ordinary people.

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Comments (1)


  1. janni says:

    My answer to your defeatist opinion is that you, as a newspaper, and this squalid tiny society in general should attempt to extend your vision beyond the ‘limited’ Caribbean
    (& not to S. America): Go take a look at Asia.
    Singapore & Hong Kong for-instance, -albeit way out of SXM’s league, might just prove inspiring as island nations/entities that have not only learned to deal with drugs but also develop multifarious societies. The latter aspect is sadly lacking in shallow little SXM…