Latin America needs a detox from the U.S. drug problem. A report released Friday by the Organization of American States openly embraces options to legalize the drug business. But the U.S. government is in denial. More guns have failed to stem the flow of blow heading north. A gradual market-based approach to drugs is overdue.
A usually irrelevant OAS has found its voice in the drug debate. Its report “The Drug Problem in the Americas” is a breath of fresh air for two main reasons. For one, it recognizes drugs as a business that can at some point be regulated. Secondly, it shows that it’s no longer taboo for Latin American countries to ponder alternatives to Washington’s war on drug lords.
The incentive to smuggle drugs to the United States, the world’s largest consumer of illegal substances, is almost irresistible. The U.S. cocaine market topped $40 billion in 2009, while marijuana reached $64 billion in 2005, based on the latest United Nations data. Cocaine’s jungle-to-nostril value chain goes like this: Cocaine paste can fetch as much as $780 per kilo in Colombia’s jungle. After smuggling costs and adulteration, that kilo becomes two, worth a total retail price of $330,000 north of the Rio Grande – more than 400 times its original value. Coffee grains, an agricultural staple of economies such as Colombia’s, barely get five times the price at the coffee shop than at the farm gate.
Washington’s bet that a military approach can defeat the drug business yields dispiriting data, too. Mexico’s government reckons nearly 150,000 people die every year in Latin America due to drug violence, civilians included. Nearly 60,000 people died in Mexico alone in the six years to January 2012, following the Mexican military’s move to flush out drug barons. In that same period the World Health Organization recorded merely 563 deaths in Mexico from illegal drug overdoses. In Colombia, OAS data show, homicides rise by 2 percent for every 10 percent increase in international cocaine prices. That is a high price to pay for someone else’s drug problem.
Countries in the region are now betting decriminalizing personal drug use will do more for them. Mexico (in 2009), Chile (2005), Brazil (2006) and others have eliminated penalties for possession of small amounts of pot and cocaine. In contrast, only 18 U.S. states allow medical marijuana and just two, Colorado and Washington State, approved laws for pot legalization. But with the brunt of the drug violence felt abroad, Washington has little incentive to make drug consumption legal.
Latin America’s patience is running out. With more robust economies and a more assertive middle class, countries in the region may soon choose to stop waging what they perceive to be a lost U.S. war.