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USA lags behind Latin America on drug policy reform

In response to President Obama's pre-Summit of the Americas comment on drug policy during the weekend (Saturday 14 April), Alex Stevens, Professor in Criminal Justice at the University of Kent and author of the book Drugs, Crime and Public Health, said:

‘In Cartagena this weekend, President Obama once again showed that the USA is failing to follow where the more courageous politicians of Latin America would like him to lead in ending the American war on drugs. Current and former presidents of Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala and Brazil have called for a more rational and open debate on how to end the violence that has ravaged their countries as drug cartels fight for control of this lucratively illegal trade. But President Obama’s speeches at this weekend's Summit of the Americas, shows how little political room the US President considers himself to have on this issue.

‘Informed by his own youthful experience of using cannabis and cocaine "when you could afford it", President Obama came to office promising a more enlightened approach to the one that has seen drug related deaths rise steeply, both inside the USA, and - to much higher levels - in the Latin American countries which suffer most from the drug wars. His first moves on this issue were encouraging. His office for drug policy said that they would no longer be prosecuting a war on drugs. The federal ban on funding needle exchange to protect users from HIV was lifted. The poppy eradication programmes that were pushing Afghan farmers into the arms of the Taliban were scaled back. However, in my book, Drugs, Crime and Public Health (Routledge, 2011), I predicted that the political imperatives that the President faces would make it unlikely that he could make the more radical changes that so many people to the South of his country and elsewhere would like to see. The USA is more deeply influenced by a protestant attachment to abstention from intoxication than countries with more catholic backgrounds. The drug war has also proved a useful tool for US politicians who wish to compete over who can be toughest on crime, while minimising attention to the social conditions which produce both crime and drug problems. Aggressive drug control has sharply increased the numbers of people both working and incarcerated in US prisons, while the economy has failed to produce other jobs. Drug users and dealers act as useful scapegoats on which to blame problems of crime and inner city squalor, drawing attention away from the failure of tax cutting, trickle-down economics to provide decent opportunities for all.

'It is politically difficult for a Democrat to challenge these unproductive policies, which Republicans since Nixon have found to be such a useful stick with which to beat their opponents. The President and his advisers know that any perception of weakness on this issue would be a gift to the Romney campaign to unseat him. Federal prosecutors have resumed the war on cannabis, raiding suppliers even in States that have decided to make the drug available for medical use. The ban on funding needle exchange has been reinstated, and the President and his representatives have repeatedly rebuffed Latin American calls for movement towards less heavy handed policies.

'President Obama's host, President Santos of Colombia, has used the platform provided to him by the Summit to call for an expert taskforce to examine the possibility of a complete overhaul of the global strategy of prohibition. In return, his American guest expressed an openness to re-examine policies which may be ‘doing more harm than good in certain places’, but he refused to countenance legalisation.

'It is unlikely that the US stance will change significantly, at least not this side of the Presidential election.'

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Alex Stevens is Professor in Criminal Justice at the University of Kent's School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research. His principal research interests focus on illicit drug policies and how they affect drug use, crime and public health. He directed the Connections project, which promoted research and good practice in preventing drugs and related infections in European criminal justice systems.


Story published at 2:24pm 16 April 2012

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