|Week Online: It's
been almost a decade since you became the most prominent voice in officialdom
to call for the legalization of the drug trade. Since then, despite
a growing number of voices like yours, the "war on drugs" has only intensified.
You and others have demonstrated clearly and repeatedly that prohibitionist
policies do not work. Yet they continue. What is the logic
that drives the drug war?
Gustavo de Greiff:
It is incredible that in view of the failures in the war on drugs, its
advocates continue to think that it is the best solution to the problems
that drug consumption creates. In my opinion, this is due to the
many political and economic interests involved in the continuation of a
failed policy. Ironically, the narcotraffickers are the least interested
in the end of prohibition. As it happened with the traffickers in
alcoholic beverages during Prohibition, when Prohibition ended, their business
also ended. The corrupt officers who profit from the war on drugs,
of course, do not want to see the end of their dirty profits; the politicians
who exploit the problems of drug consumption picturing themselves as moral
leaders of their communities do not wish to end the problem (they would
have to lower their battle flags); the governmental agencies with big budgets
and large bureaucracies clearly would not want to see their source of income
disappear; and so on. And how about with those persons that indirectly
profit from the war, through their apparent clean deals with the people
that have financial resources acquired from their participation in the
war on drugs? Along with all those people there are some honest persons
that really think that the only way to end the problem is through prohibition.
So there are too many interests involved in the problem. But I think
this should not discourage us in claiming a better way of dealing with
the problems that psychotropic and narcotic drugs create, i.e., legalization.
WOL: How does the "war
on drugs" tie in to broader US foreign policy in Latin America?
de Greiff: The US government
has used the war on drugs for political purposes in Latin America.
The war on drugs has served as a pretext for that government to intervene
politically and commercially in various countries. One clear example
of this was the pressure put on Colombia in 1985 to cease exporting bananas
to Europe by threatening to decertify Colombia in the war on drugs.
A current example is Plan Colombia, with its branching out to Ecuador,
where the US government has established a military base. There are
many other examples of what I am talking about.
WOL: Can you talk about
your home country, Colombia? During the time you prosecuted the drug
war there, we saw the fall of the Medellin cartel and the killing of Pablo
Escobar. A decade later, it seems only the contours of the traffic
have changed. Simon Bolivar once said that trying to unify Latin
America was like trying to plow the sea. Might the same metaphor
apply for suppressing the drug traffic in Colombia?
de Greiff: Colombia,
I think, is the country that has suffered most from the war on drugs.
Many people have died in the fight, and the Colombian economy has not benefited
from the drug traffic, contrary to what some US officials think.
The Colombian government has been forced to divert a substantial part of
its yearly budget to prosecuting the drug war with no benefits at all,
money that would had been better invested in educational campaigns against
consumption, among other things. This has been recognized by the
acting Minister of the Interior of Colombia, who said that with legalization
the problem of drugs for Colombia would be terminated. Of course,
the minister also recognized that Colombia could not take that road by
WOL: Here in Mexico,
the government over the weekend announced it was shutting down FEADS, a
specialized drug enforcement unit because of concerns about corruption.
What does that tell you about the state of Mexico's "war on drugs"?
de Greiff: Mexico,
like Colombia, is doing the best it can to carry on the war. I would
say that the US does the same. The problem is that unfortunately
all three have adopted a failed strategy. We can see that merely
by studying the history of this war that is being fought for more than
20 years now with very negligible results.
WOL: Things have changed
somewhat since you were driven from office in 1994. Government officials,
including heads of state, from various countries have begun to talk about
legalization. Is it your sense, given the institutional forces we
are up against, that we are making real progress in changing the prohibitionist
de Greiff: I think
that notwithstanding the numerous interests that are involved in the continuation
of the failed strategy, we should continue to advocate for its change,
by both showing to the people those failures and trying to educate them
on how a regulation of production and sales of those drugs should take
place. We also need to support educational campaigns to dissuade
people from consuming those drugs. I think it is very important to
put it very clearly that legalization or, better, regulation, is not an
invitation to consume those drugs. Recently the head of the White
House's ONDCP, John Walters, said during a visit to Mexico something of
the sort that "legalizers" were oblivious to the damages that drugs caused
to the young and of the violence involved in the commerce. Of course,
this is the political stance typical of the warriors: to attribute to their
opponents something that is only apparently true. I would challenge
them to show any declaration or stance from legalizers who advocate consumption.
And concerning violence, is it not evident that it has been fueled precisely
by prohibition? I would ask him to show me if such violence as you
see in the drug traffic exists in the commerce of alcoholic beverages.
WOL: How does this
conference fit into the process of change?
de Greiff: The Mérida
conference is a very good opportunity to present our case to the people
and to continue showing all the maladies brought about by the war on drugs
and how legalization can work to avoid those problems.
WOL: You have said
you were not in favor of decriminalization as opposed to legalization.
Can you explain what you meant and why?
de Greiff: Decriminalization
is commonly understood as a policy of not penalizing consumption.
By legalization, I mean a policy of legal regulation of the production
and sale of the drugs that are now prohibited, along with educational campaigns
to dissuade their consumption, combined with the provision of science-based
treatment to addicts. I do not favor decriminalization because while
it creates a less risky environment for consumers, it still leaves a black
market for the narcotraffickers, allowing them their obscene profits and
allows those corrupted by the profits to continue to benefit. The
only sensible part of decriminalization is to treat consumers not as criminals
but as persons who need honest and scientific information in order to make
an informed decision about whether to use a certain substance or not.
Some of those who do choose to use a drug will need to be helped if they
have fallen into addiction.