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Drugs seizure. , : Niall Carson/PA Wire
Image: picture-alliance/empics

Drugs rethink

Tobias Käufer / cmk
May 29, 2013

The Organization of American States has called for a rethink on drugs, suggesting legalization. The focus would be on patients instead of criminals, with controlled sales replacing illegal transactions.


The Organization of American States (OAS) has proposed a gradual decriminalization of drugs as a strategy to combat the increasingly powerful drug mafias. A recent study commissioned by the organization has recommended that in future the use of drugs should no longer be considered a crime, but instead seen as a health issue.

The $2.2-million (1.7 million euros) study was commissioned in response to an initiative by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at last year's Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. The US delegation had initially rejected a demand from the Latin American countries to put the drugs debate on the summit's agenda.

Santos, together with Guatemala President Otto Perez Molina and El Salvador President Mauricio Funes, has called for alternatives to the military strategy in the fight against the drug mafia. In Mexico alone, more than 50,000 people have fallen victim in the war against drugs cartels, without any significant weakening on the part of the cartels.

Crosses and pictures of people killed or abducted by alleged drug gangs (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
More than 50,000 people have died in the war against drugs cartels in MexicoImage: picture alliance/landov

According to the European policing agency Europol, the leading Mexican cartels Los Zetas and Sinaloa have become "global market coordinators for cocaine smuggling in Europe and North America." Even small Central American countries acting as transit countries have suffered from the violence of the drug cartels.

Controlled marijuana sales

The study, recently presented by Santos and OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza, recommends the legalization of "soft drugs" such as marijuana. This would then bring the production, sale and use of the drug under control and away from criminal influence. According to the study, drug addicts should be given improved access to rehabilitation measures, and should be seen as patients rather than criminals. The study aims to launch a debate on the entire American continent, leading to a more effective fight against drugs.

"There is a clear contradiction: on the one hand, we treat a drug addict as a sick person, but on the other hand we want to punish his drug use," said Insulza. The study suggests that if the production and consumption of marijuana were to be legalized, the cultivation of marijuana would no longer be profitable for the drug mafias. For the moment, the cartels enjoy a high profit margin thanks to street sales that exceed the actual price of production several times over.

Change of course in EU

Latin America is following the lead of the EU: the decision to expand treatment services for heroin addicts in almost all European countries in 2012 led to a noticeable decline in demand. In Europe, marijuana is by far the most widely used illegal substance. The controlled cultivation and sale of the substance in Latin America would thus have a direct impact on Europe, which would then have to follow Latin America's lead.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (Xinhua/Colombian Presidency)(ctt) XINHUA /LANDOV
Santos has been critical of the US drug policiesImage: AP

This, however, would require a change of course. Decriminalization is mentioned nowhere in the current EU Drugs Strategy for the years 2013-2020 - instead, the recommendations speak of continuing the existing approaches which include the destruction of drug cultivation fields in the countries of origin.

In Europe, Portugal is seen as a pioneer in the legalization strategy. There, drug use and possession have been decriminalized since 2001, though consumers may not carry more than 10 times the daily dose. Since decriminalization, dependency rates have not increased and the number of drug-related deaths has declined by about 35 percent, which authorities have attributed to a targeted assistance of drug addicts.

No legalization of cocaine

In the past, the Colombian president has accused the United States of being ambiguous in the fight against drugs, demanding that Colombian farmers abandon illicit drug cultivation but at the same time legalizing marijuana use in some US states. While his own country fights against the drug cartels, "the gringos relax with a joint," he said.

Colombiais the world's largest cocaine producer, with the Colombian drug cartels exporting around 100 billion euros ($128.5 billion) worth every year, primarily to the US and Europe. Legalization of cocaine was not recommended in the OAS report.

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