When it comes to the War on (Some People’s) Drugs, the Portuguese have learned that lesson. Sadly, here in the United States, we’re still plodding ahead, thinking the game can be won. Two stories that popped up while I was away really threw that difference into sharp relief.
The first was this story, from Wired, about how United States Marines are stepping up operations in Guatemala. They’re part of Operation Martillo, which goes well beyond the usual training and technical assistance US forces have provided to overseas drug warriors in the past:
The Marines’ share of the operation involves chasing drug traffickers with UH-1N Huey helicopters. The Marine contingent has four of the choppers, and the Marines are carrying weapons. ‘It’s not every day that you have 200-some Marines going to a country in Central and South America aside from conducting training exercises,’ Staff Sgt. Earnest Barnes, the public affairs chief for Marine Corps Forces South, tells Danger Room. Prior to the Marines’ deployment, there were only a ‘handful’ of Marines in the country, Barnes says.The Marines are only authorized to fire in self defense (leaving the Guatemalans to proactively shoot the bad guys), but that doesn’t mean things always work out right:
On the night of May 11, Honduran troops along with Drug Enforcement Administration agents allegedly killed two civilians — possibly four according to local accounts — including a pregnant woman. According to a report released this month by the Center for Economic Policy and Research, Honduran troops and U.S. agents seized a boat on a river containing cocaine near the town of Ahuas, when another boat — containing civilians — rammed into the first boat in the darkness. DEA agents and Honduran troops circling in a helicopter then fired on the second boat. The U.S. has denied that any of its agents took part.The second paragraph there really nails it. The more like a real war you make something, the more often anybody who’s not on your team looks like the enemy. Which is not to say that the target of Operation Martillo, one of Central America’s violent cartels, are good guys who should be left alone. But it does suggest that there are better ways to deal with the problem than sending in the Marines.
The DEA isn’t a military organization, but what the Ahuas shootings represented was a military approach to the drug war gone bad. A case of mistaken identity, sure, as the mayor of Ahuas said following the shootings. But it also reflects a danger of stopping drugs at the point of a gun.
Which brings us to Portugal. Ten years ago, the Portuguese decriminalized drugs and began treating addicts as a medical, rather than legal (and moral) problem. The results are in and it appears to be a roaring success (via):
’There is no doubt that the phenomenon of addiction is in decline in Portugal,’ said Joao Goulao, President of the Institute of Drugs and Drugs Addiction, a press conference to mark the 10th anniversary of the law.Drug use in Portugal is generally lower than the rest of Europe. The change in the criminal law wasn’t the only factor, of course, but it’s a necessary precondition for dealing with the problem as a medical and social one, rather than a criminal one:
The number of addicts considered ‘problematic’ -- those who repeatedly use ‘hard’ drugs and intravenous users -- had fallen by half since the early 1990s, when the figure was estimated at around 100,000 people, Goulao said.
A law that became active on July 1, 2001 did not legalise drug use, but forced users caught with banned substances to appear in front of special addiction panels rather than in a criminal court.As you can see, decriminalization isn’t the same thing and legalization. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Imagine a public policy that would lower the number of people actually addicted to drugs that would, at the same time, rescue the Fourth Amendment from its nearly fatal wounds at the altar of the Drug War. I hate the term “win/win,” but that comes pretty close, don’t you think.
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Since then, government panels have recommended a response based largely on whether the individual is an occasional drug user or an addict.
Of the nearly 40,000 people currently being treated, ‘the vast majority of problematic users are today supported by a system that does not treat them as delinquents but as sick people,’ Goulao said.
We’ve fought the War on (Other People’s) Drugs for decades and are no closer to winning it. It’s time to change course, trying something different, and realize that the winning move, sometimes, is to stop playing the damned game.