I am finally going to have to discuss drugs. You know what drugs are: coffee, tobacco, alcohol, and all those things people use to alter their feeling or state of mind. Coffee and rum abound here, but the main drugs of concern here in Central America are those not legal.
The Guatemalan government is currently proposing de-criminalization of drugs. The US government has rejected the idea out of hand. In contrast, the UK government have a more sensible approach: they have told Guatemala that while they do not support the proposal, they do support opening the discussion about de-criminalization. After all, we say we are people of thought and logic: we cannot have a reasoned approach without having a chance to have a thorough discussion about the topic.
First, I urge my friends who take illegal drugs once in a while and think it does no harm, to think through the supply chain and consider whether consuming something that is a major source of profit for gangs, may in fact be harming people along its way from the field to you. Your own consumption may not amount to much, but a conglomeration of many grains of sand builds whole sand dune systems.
Let me tell you why I think de-criminalization should be seen as having merits, especially by people who believe in commerce´s hegemony in the world. First of all, the drugs problem is created and fertilized by demand, mostly from the Global North. Governments, agencies, and individuals have battled against the tragedy of (different kinds of) addiction for centuries. We humans haven´t managed yet to find the solution. But it must be easier to address the psychological and physiological issues in addiction if the user is not also a criminal for using the substance to which he or she is addicted. People like me, addicted to coffee, have only to fear our slow minds in the morning, not the heavy hand of the law. Alcoholics and people addicted to prescription drugs or to cigarettes, when brave enough, can deal directly with their illness. We should do the same for those addicted to other substances: simplify the problem by making it single problem to solve, the addiction itself.
Let´s look at what this demand has done to the countries in which I have been travelling. In Mexico, more than 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in the past five years. Apparently, the number killed in Mexico is more than the number of US citizens killed in the US-Vietnam war. There are daily shootings here in Guatemala and a lot of drug violence in Honduras, as well.
Poor people- that 43% of the world living on less than US$2 a day – can choose between subsistence food crops, cash crops which bring in some money, and very risky cash crops which must be incentivized in some way. (By this I mean, there is some reason people are choosing to grow drug crops, whether the potential income or another factor such as external pressure.) If price is the reason, one main factor in the price of drug crops is their illegality – this shadow market has a pricing which is affected by a twisted supply, caused by the illicitness of the market. Once de-criminalized, I predict a growth in the Fair Trade and organic marijuana market, for users who want to know the growers and the earth were treated fairly in production.
If the US did not have to fight the War on Drugs any more, perhaps they could start to address the problems of poverty in their own country, using the money currently going to maintain bases and military staff in Honduras. (Honduras is just an example: I recently met some US Air Force personnel there on their way for a long weekend of scuba diving.)
Currently, drugs are traded and transported by people who are frightening and who frighten locals. People have told me sometimes that they know drugs are transported nearby, but they are afraid to find out more. ´´The wrong people are in jail,´´ said one local. ´´The good people have had to put bars on their windows and doors to try to keep their houses secure, and they stay inside at night. The bad people roam the streets at will.´´ Drugs passing through a town are sometimes consumed by locals – who may become addicted and start stealing to gain income. In Utila, a church bell had been stolen to be sold to the scrap metal merchant. The tragedy of addiction can contaminate the communities where members participate in the drug trade.
Finally, if drugs are de-criminalized in the Global North, it will take the wind right out of the sails of these gangs that are currently gaining more and more power. Legitimate businessmen will be able to have drug emporia – the way they can now make profits from tobacco, coffee, alcohol, and even sugar. I admit one could argue that they are not the most moral of merchants, but neither, to my mind, is selling arms and ammunition, and that is considered a legitimate, extremely profitable business. Indeed, why are those focused on profit and commerce not chafing to be able to enter legally into this profitable market?
Legalizing drugs will permit countries to control their sale and use, as they do for tobacco and alcohol. (And I am thankful they don´t prohibit coffee purchase before 10am !) To come back to my first point, it will permit users to be helped without shame, with a product more controlled by normal supply and demand, not by gangs and criminals.
I realize many in North America will assume this is a Dutch perspective, but I hope people -and the US government – will enter into the discussion. The tragedy here every day is too much to endure, and we have it in our means to change the game completely, from the purview of violent criminals to one of commerce controlled by agreements and market mechanisms like Fair Trade.
(Update 11 March: Today`s Prensa Libre reports that Mike Hammer, US Acting Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (US Department of State), announced on 8 March that the US is against legalization of drugs but is now prepared to debate the topic, provided there is increased international cooperation. A good step forward, although the news article did not specify what kind of cooperation was desired, nor how much would be sufficient.)