More people are asking why some drug users have to be jailed while other users (such as Olympic champion Michael Phelps) maintain successful, even flourishing careers.
Drug policy reform is moving even faster abroad. In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Not only has the predicted spike in drug use and a public health crisis failed to materialize, Portugal’s drug usage rates compare more favorably than many other European states that have kept up a strict “lock ‘em up” approach.
In Latin America, policymakers impressed by the experience of Portugal and other countries have begun to move in that direction. Earlier this year, a commission headed by three former Latin American presidents — Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico — called on the governments of the region to break the taboo of discussing alternative drug policies such as decriminalization.
Just recently, Argentina hosted the first Latin American Conference on Drug Policies, a high‐profile event sponsored by, among others, the United Nations, the Pan‐American Health Organization and the Anti‐Drug Latin American Initiative on Drugs and Democracy. The participants, including high‐ranking government officials and experts from the region, labeled the war on drugs a failure and suggested a more pragmatic approach to drug policy based on decriminalizing possession for personal consumption.
During the event, Anibal Fernandez, chief of staff for Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, announced that her administration will be submitting a decriminalization bill to Congress in the upcoming months. An Ecuadorean official said similar legislation will soon be debated in that country’s National Assembly. Brazil is considering similar changes.
Mexico recently decriminalized possession of any drug so long as the amounts were small enough to indicate personal use. The Supreme Court of Argentina recently ruled that it is unconstitutional to punish marijuana users if no other person is harmed by such use.
There is no ideological common denominator among those questioning the war on drugs. Both liberal and conservative policymakers are dissatisfied with the gang violence that pervades the black market and the futility of trying to stop adults who wish to use drugs from doing so.
We seem to have finally reached a tipping point where the costs of the drug war clearly exceed any perceived benefit. Drug addiction is a problem. But just as alcohol prohibition was a mistaken approach to the problem of alcoholism, so too is the drug war a mistaken approach to drug abuse.