Photo Jonathan Blair

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Cannabis legalization is a sideshow. Illegal market management is the real game.

The Americas are slowly moving towards the full legalization of cannabis. Uruguay is still alone among national governments to have gone all the way, but for marijuana at least, hardline prohibition is quickly being replaced by a range of flexible arrangements, from the legalization of ‘personal doses,’ to the decriminalization of possession –as in the ‘ticket’ option being considered by Peter McKay. These changes are long overdue, and the fuller the liberalization, the better, in spite of the increase in consumption which should logically follow the drop in price and the lifting of sanctions. The benefits of consumption are most likely limited, but the potential negative health and social consequences of higher cannabis consumption pale when compared to the massive damage inflicted by tobacco, alcohol and prescription opioids. Moreover, much of the harm caused by the criminalization of cannabis is tied to the huge social and economic impact of marijuana-related arrests and convictions in the United States, an issue that would simply vanish with legalization.

Eliminating that part of the problem is a good thing. But the main challenge lies elsewhere. The War on Drugs has been an unmitigated disaster, mainly because it has created the conditions for mass murder in Latin America. In five years, between 2007 and 2012 and according to the latest available data (UNODC, 2014), 773,052 people have been murdered in the region: 274,585 in Brazil, 121,683 in Mexico, 92,274 in Colombia, 84,980, in Venezuela, 36,237 in Guatemala, and so on. By no means all of those homicides were drug-related, but most analysts agree that a very large proportion of them is tied to drugs or more precisely to conflict over shares of domestic markets and export routes. To this carnage, cannabis and its traffic have contributed very little. Cocaine is the culprit and its legalization, which would destroy the black market and eliminate the violence currently tied to it, is not in the cards. Not here, nor in Latin America. Something else must be sought.

By any humane standard, harm reduction in this case has to mean the reduction of homicidal violence and the limited liberalization that is politically feasible would simply not help. Decriminalization of cocaine possession and personal use, moreover, could very well lead to increased consumption and create larger, more valuable and more competitive drug markets. What is needed are policies that make those markets less violent.

This may seem far-fetched, but in fact, it is not. The largest drug markets in the world, North America and Europe, are not violent at all by Latin American standards, even the US’. Mexico, as it became the main hub of the global cocaine market in the 1990s and early 2000s, saw its homicide rate decline by half. Mexico City, the country’s largest drug consumption market, has a homicide rate of about 8 per 100,000, very low by regional standards. Similarly, Bogota, Medellin, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Recife have seen their homicide rates drop by between 40 and 70% without any indication that drug consumption was going down.

Illegal drug markets can be managed. Gang truces in El Salvador, albeit fragile, have proven to be very effective at reducing violence. On universities and their surrounding student ghettos all over Canada, there are very active drug markets that the police and traffickers themselves are very careful not to disturb and, as a result, drug-related violence is essentially non-existent. More explicit arrangements, which Mexico’s Jorge Chabat has called ‘Pax Narcotica,’ were clearly behind the decline in that country’s violence and its end, under Calderon, widely seen as the main reason for its descent into hell.

Drug legalization is no panacea: the main cause of drug overdoses in North America are perfectly legal opioid painkillers. The same holds for illegal market management: Mexico’s Pax Narcotica, for instance, threatened to destroy Mexico’s budding democracy and for that very reason, many supported Calderon’s disruptive and ultimately deadly offensive against traffickers. And yet, for as along as the legalization of hard drugs is not on the table, any serious attempt at reducing the harm that drug and drug policies beget must include an effort to manage illegal drug markets in a way that minimizes violence.

[First published on as “A less-violent, illicit drug market?”]