Timeline of total number of inmates in U.S. prisons and jails. From 1920 to 2008.

Two weeks ago I was a presenter in Washington, DC at an international conference on Ending the Global War on Drugs, sponsored by the Cato Institute. The entire conference can now be viewed on-line. My talk was on Rethinking Drug Policy Assumptions, and was part of the concluding panel, A Non-Prohibitionist Way Forward for U.S. and International Drug Policy.

A highlight of the day for me was an opportunity after the conference to chat in Portuguese, albeit briefly, with Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil (and a sociologist). Latin America was well represented, since other presenters included Vicente Fox, former President of Mexico; Jorge Castañeda, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mexico; Luis Alberto Lacalle Pou, Speaker of the House of Deputies of Uruguay; and Enrique Gomez Hurtado, former Senator of Colombia. (Other participants included George Shultz, former Secretary of State of the United States and Romesh Bhattacharji, former Narcotics Commissioner of India. Fox and Schultz's presentations were pre-recorded.)

From my point of view there are two main reasons for the participation of so many high-powered "formers" in the conference. The first is that the United States, as the world's only super-power, has been able to enforce its will on other countries. For those governments, other priorities in their relationships with ours have outweighed the severe costs the War on Drugs has imposed on their societies. As a result, responsible officials have had to hold their tongues while in power; but once out of office, they find themselves free to speak. The second is that, over time, the escalating catastrophe caused by the global drug war has begun to threaten the very stability of their countries, and made it urgent for them to speak out. For example, from a population roughly one-third the size of the United States, Mexico has suffered deaths that are beginning to approach American totals from the entire Vietnam War. And those deaths have been taking place on their streets and before their eyes--not in a distant jungle.

In my talk, I tried to highlight a number of mistaken assumptions underlying the War on Drugs and to offer alternatives with different policy implications. One of these is the assumption that "drugs cause crime, corruption, and disease "—leading to a prohibitionist policy implemented by a war on drugs. Unfortunately, the drug war creates a gigantic black market that undermines the stability of friendly countries—witness Colombia and Mexico—and finances our enemies—for example Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Attempts to suppress the black market by force merely spread it, from one country to another or, in response to local police crackdowns, from one neighborhood to another.

Instead of "drugs cause crime, corruption, and disease," a more accurate formulation is "drug prohibition causes a black market; and the black market causes crime, corruption, and disease." This alternative implies a policy of drastically shrinking the black market, by creating a regulated legal market.

One exciting development discussed at the conference has been the uniting of key figures, such as the former Presidents of Brazil (Cardoso), Mexico (Fox and Zedillo), and Colombia (Gaviria) to advocate for reversing the drug war policy that is causing such havoc in their countries.

Image Source:
Timeline of total number of inmates in U.S. prisons and jails. From 1920 to 2008.
Wikimedia Commons http://bit.ly/uEkXwD

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