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DRCNet Interview: Gustavo de Greiff, Former Attorney General of Colombia (1/24/03)

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This interview originally ran in Drug War Chronicle issue #237 (at the time known as "The Week Online" during the run-up to our 2003 Latin American drug legalization summit, "Out from the Shadows." Video footage of de Greiff's address at the conference can be viewed here. Gustavo de Greiff became attorney general of Colombia at the height of the Medellin drug cartel's wave of violence and mass assassinations in the early 1990s. He presided over the operation that broke the cartel and ended the life of its chief, notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, in late 1993. Not content to let history repeat itself unchallenged, de Greiff broke ranks with the US-dominated drug war establishment to call for an end to drug prohibition, and began a sustained effort to push the global legalization debate forward. After drawing criticism for his stance from the Clinton administration and Sen. John Kerry (then head of the Senate International Relations Committee), de Greiff left office, but has continued to be a respected voice in the international drug reform movement. After serving as Colombia's ambassador to Mexico, de Greiff joined the faculty of the Colegio de Mexico. De Greiff is chairman of the steering committee for the Out from the Shadows conference. DRCNet conducted this interview with him via e-mail in Mexico City.
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 itself. 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 regime? 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.
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