San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Drug debate heats up

“This is Plan B,” said Guatemala’s vice president, Roxana Baldetti. “Plan A is what has failed. Plan A is what we have been doing until today, and unfortunately, we have not succeeded.”

Baldetti visited Costa Rica Wednesday to discuss with President Laura Chinchilla new ways of combating narco-trafficking in Central America. Baldetti is touring the region to drum up support for high-level discussions on the topic after Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina floated the idea of decriminalizing illicit drugs earlier this month.

The idea has generated a lot of buzz in a region that lies directly between the world’s largest consumer of drugs, the United States, and the world’s major producer of cocaine, Colombia. The United Nations estimates that 90 percent of cocaine that arrives in the U.S. passes through the region.

Chinchilla and Baldetti spoke publicly about the issue Wednesday at Casa Presidencial in the southeastern San José district of Zapote. Chinchilla indicated a willingness to participate in talks about different strategies for tackling the growing problems of crime, violence and corruption – part and parcel of the illegal drug trade – but stopped short of endorsing flat-out legalization of illicit drugs.

“In the fight against illicit drug trafficking, if we are laying out the dead, if we are sacrificing an entire generation to the hands of the maras [gangs] and pandillas, and if we are losing faith in our institutions because of corruption and intimidation, then the minimum that Central America can do is discuss, debate, endeavor and rigorously evaluate what we have done,” Chinchilla said. 

Costa Rica has had a de facto policy of decriminalization of drug use since the 1990s. Public Security Minister Mario Zamora said that there simply isn’t enough space in Costa Rican prisons to incarcerate every small-time drug user. Still, Zamora expressed skepticism at the notion of illicit drug legalization as a panacea for the region’s woes.

“The belief that legalization is going to curb the violence, from my point of view, is not a reality,” Zamora said. “Because we’re talking about the legalization of hard drugs and it would be suicide for our society to legalize drugs like cocaine or crack. There will always be users with the need to commit crimes, to rob to get the money they need for their drugs.”

Both Zamora and Chinchilla said Costa Rica’s policy has always been that drug consumption is a public health issue, not a criminal one. Zamora also said that drug-use patterns in the region are changing.

“In Central America 15 years ago, the area was no more than a route through which drugs passed. … Today, the percentage of [drugs] that stay in Central America is increasing to satisfy a growing market of addicts in the region, and Costa Rica is no exception,” Zamora said. “We have decriminalized drug use de facto because we can’t take everyone to prison who uses drugs.” 

Zamora said more focus is needed on helping substance abusers get treatment. A barrier to that is the cost of treatment programs, which in many cases are too expensive for middle-class and low-income families. 

Baldetti’s Central America tour kicked off the same week that U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano visited the region.  

Asked on Tuesday about the issue of illicit drug legalization after a meeting with Chinchilla, Napolitano replied: “The United States does not believe that legalizing [illicit] drugs is the way out of this problem; it is a combination of other things. It’s demand reduction. It’s good treatment and abuse prevention techniques. It is effective law enforcement and prosecution.”

Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron said there are real reasons to take the notion of legalizing illicit drugs seriously.

“Prohibiting drugs, like prohibiting many things, doesn’t eliminate those markets,” Miron said. “It may have some effects in reducing their size, but it mainly drives it underground, and underground markets are characterized by violence and corruption for fairly obviously reasons.”

According to Miron, the illegal-drug trade drives corruption, “because once there’s a black market, people have incentives to bribe judges and police and prosecutors to avoid prosecution or arrest, and violence because in illegal markets you don’t resolve your disputes with advertising or lawsuits, … you resolve your disputes more likely with violence.”

Some products, Miron said, may have undesirable side effects, but those can be regulated without driving markets underground where they are unregulated by laws of any sort.

“Alcohol, as an example, in most countries is legal,” said Miron. “And there are laws which attempt to reduce the unwanted side effects of alcohol consumption, such as driving-under-the-influence laws, restrictions on purchases by minors, etc. So, we see most people are able to use alcohol legally without any particular hassle. You don’t see drive-by shootings in relation to the alcohol trade. You don’t see anybody making Budweiser in Mexico and trying to bring it over the border.”

Rafael Lemaitre, associate director for public affairs at the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, disagreed: “Ongoing violence between transnational criminal organizations in Mexico has recently spurred increased discussion of [illicit] drug legalization as a ‘silver bullet’ policy solution. The U.S. continues to oppose drug legalization because evidence shows our shared drug problem is a major public health and safety threat, and drug addiction is a disease that can be successfully prevented and treated. … Research also shows that policies that would make drugs more available would likely not eliminate the black market or improve public health and safety.” 

Baldetti said her trip isn’t solely about the merits of legalizing illicit drugs, but about the real need for new policies in a region that has become one of the deadliest in the world.

“Today more than ever, the leadership of Central America needs to confront the issue of drugs. More Central Americans cannot continue dying for a problem that, ultimately, is not ours,” Baldetti said. “Central Americans cannot continue being used by criminal organizations for an issue that only leaves us dead and that diverts the resources, the few, scant resources, that we could invest in health and education and hospitals, to fighting drug trafficking.”

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