Prospects of Legalising Drugs in Latin America

Latin America is the largest drug market in the world. It has the suitable climate and physiographic conditions for the cultivation of various plants that have properties of psychoactive drugs. Neo-liberalisation has led to the market expansion at an exponential magnitude and drug trafficking has become a necessary issue to be discussed in the International Political Economy. Today, Columbia is the world’s leading producer of cocaine with a 5 billion dollar industry and a total of 200,000 people employed in the supply chain of the market. The Mexican drug industry profits about 38 billion dollars annually which accounts for almost 3% of the country’s 1.5 trillion dollars GDP and almost 450,000 people are employed in the industry. Mexico is not only a leading exporter of drugs to the United States but it is an important transit for almost all the routes that travel from Latin America into the United States.

According to the US National Library of Medicine, there are three major policy trends that show across Latin America. In the first category, there is Peru, El Salvador and Bolivia who observe a very conservative outlook on their perception of risks of cannabis and other stimulants. The second category consists of countries like Chile and Uruguay who support drug reform policy. Finally, Argentina, Columbia, Brazil and Mexico tend to occupy a middle-ground in their stances despite being the largest players in the entire market circuit. Thus, there is a considerable heterogeneity in the policies. It has been argued by several analysts that the lack of a uniform consensus in the continent is the reason for the ill-effects of this business.

The production base of the industry in the home countries is ever-increasing. For example, opium production jumped from 71 tons in 2005 to 425 tons in 2009, and Mexico surpassed Burma as the world’s second largest producer in 2009; cannabis cultivation has increased from 5600 hectares in 2005 to 17,500 hectares in 2009; and methamphetamine production also appears to be rising. With this, the drug-related crimes are also increasing. In Colombia, 15,000 people were killed in a 20 year war against drug cartels, while the Mexican government’s war against drug cartels has led to more than 120,000 Mexican deaths and disappearances since 2006. Given the situation, many analysts have predicted that any policy towards decriminalisation or the legalisation of drugs would bring about a number of positive changes. Let us look at few of them.

Decriminalisation or the legalisation of drugs would reduce narco-violence to an extent. According to Sharyn Rosenbaum, the number of drug-related crimes would reduce. It has been estimated that for every 200 heroin addicts there are almost more than 50,000 heroin-related crimes. The reason why decriminalisation of possession or consumption of drug would help is that it would free the process from criminal judicial system which is very ineffective at handling these tasks. Second important argument supporting the legalisation of drugs in Latin America is that it could help in curtailing the power of the drug cartels by wiping off the black market and the informal nature of the extensive demand and supply chain. Legalisation would help in curtailing the monopoly of the drug cartels that are as powerful as the state in most of the countries. It would help in transferring the revenue in limited amount to the actual beneficiaries that is the ground-level producers.

One of the most popular models of legalising drugs is at Portugal. Portugal legalised all its drugs back in 2001. According to the Transform Foundation, one of the important results of legalisation was the removal of criminal penalties for personal drug possession. This change did not cause an increase in levels of drug usage. A much nuanced approach to legalising policy is that drugs are not legally consumable. However, the Portugal model suggests that any such policy accompanies with a number of secondary policies that take action on individual consumption. Also, if we were to take lessons from history, we could look back to the USA’s decision to prohibit manufacturing, transportation and consumption of alcohol in 1910s. The decision had to be refuted because of its implausibility.

However, history also provides counter-instances. US Attorney Valukas argues that in the Netherlands and Great Britain decriminalisation did not reduce drug usage. His evidence indicates that drug abuse will increase if drugs are legalised. After decriminalisation of marijuana in Alaska, twice as many high school students used marijuana, says a report. Also, the argument that legalisation will rupture the black market can also prove to be counterproductive as even if drugs begin to be sold in the market at a lesser price and at minimal quantity, if an addict wants more quantity, there will always be a black market for these requirements which have been prohibited by the law.

Thus, the arguments towards any policy move have its own counter-possibilities. In order for any legalisation policy from Latin America to be effective, it needs a supplementary policy from the demand side of the global value-chain of the drug industry. The supply and the demand side of the market need to be addressed simultaneously. This needs a regional effort in the entire Americas towards regulation of the informally crystallised market. Action needs to be taken towards curbing the intermingling between the Latin American drug lobby and the US gun lobby. Finally, the Latin American economies need to diversify their competencies to control drug trafficking.

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