Ethan Nadelmann in Mexico:
"A Guerrilla Struggle to End the Drug War"
By Dan Feder
Special to the Narco News Bulletin
November 3, 2002
“I’m proud of my country,” said Ethan Nadelmann this past Wednesday at a talk at the Center for Investigation and Economic Teachings (CIDE, in its Spanish initials), a small institute on the outskirts of Mexico City. “But do you remember that Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire? I unfortunately do regard my government as an evil empire of drug prohibition. We are a country that for almost 100 years has aggressively pursued a policy of prohibition.”
Every day, South of the Border, the consensus breaks down a little more. That consensus, the other “Washington Consensus,” that there is no way for a community or nation to deal with drugs other than total prohibition, finds fewer and fewer adherents after each year of failure. Perhaps no one has done more in the past two decades to expose all the fallacies and hypocrisies that he sees in the US-led global prohibitionist regime than lawyer, criminologist and activist Ethan Nadelmann. Nadelmann was in Mexico City last week to speak about the cause to which he has devoted his life: ending that global prohibition.
The justification for that global policy, said Nadelmann, is not, as drug warriors claim, the interests of the international community, or even of drug addicts, but comes from a quasi-religious obsession with drugs coming to US shores and “poisoning our children.” Despite this continuing obsession in the United States, said Nadelmann, and despite that country’s ever-increasing power in the international scene, legalization is becoming more and more accepted as the only long-term option.
This slow change in attitude in academic and policy-making circles – as well as, of course, Civil Society – was the theme of Nadelmann’s visit. He noted the serious changes that have occurred since he first started visiting Mexico as a noted voice in the drug policy debate in the 1980’s.
“I came to Mexico in 1988,” said Nadelmann, “fourteen years ago, at a time when the drug war was at an hysterical point in the United States. Public opinion polls showed that 50% of Americans thought that drugs were the number one problem in the country.” He came for an international meeting at the Colegio de Mexico, one of Mexico’s most elite academic institutions. At this meeting, Nadelmann recognized a pattern he would see over and over again at similar meetings around the world.
“What I found in many of these discussions was what I called the tale of the two dialogues. We would sit around the table for a day or two, and the discussions were all about, ‘oh, we need to agree that this is a problem of supply and demand, and we Americans have to reduce our demand, and you Latin Americans have to reduce your supply, and we need to look at alternative crop development and crop substitution, and giving opportunities to campesinos. And of course we need the carrot of economic assistance, and we need the stick of eradication. And don’t forget that you’ll respect our sovereignty because we respect your sovereignty, and by the way, lets not let this drug issue mess up more important things, so, better to put it on the back burner.’ And everybody would sort of nod.
“Then we would all break up and go have our nice dinners, and over some tequila, and whiskey sours, or whatever, we would have the other dialogue. Fifty percent of the people, mostly the Latin Americans, would say, let’s face it. Legalization is the only thing that makes sense.
“Another 25 percent would mostly keep their views to themselves, they would be cautious, they would sort of nod, and they would agree, and they would say, ‘well, of course, we agree, but you know you can’t really talk about that. Because where can it go?’ And the other 25 percent would say, ‘what? Legalization? That’s immoral, that’s terrible, what about the children? Never can we have that discussion.’ And so we would go back, and get on the stage, and there would be the same old discussion from before.”
But, as Nadelmann points out, this is beginning to change. When a Mexican police chief declared that legalization was the best solution to Mexico’s drug problem, President Vicente Fox agreed with him in front of the media (and, of course, immediately qualified the statement by assuring the world that he would not act on it). Soon afterward, the President Jorge Batlle of Uruguay publicly advocated legalization, much to the horror of the US government.
Although the United States is where he works and is the focus of his research, Nadelmann believes that Mexico is in a unique position in the history of drug control. For decades, he said, the US has been tackling the problem of substance abuse – the “demand” side of the supply-demand model that is usually used to describe the drug trade – while Mexico has been held responsible for tackling the supply side of the problem.
“Now, there really is the beginnings of a drug abuse problem in Mexico,” said Nadelmann, “with Amphetamines, and cocaine to some extent. You have a chance to think about this in new and creative ways, rather than simply doing what has failed in America for the last 30 years.”
Nadelmann criticized the view that American drug policy is primarily a way to dominate Mexico – a view he claims is shared by many of his Mexican colleagues. The suffering of the Latin American people, he said, is nothing compared to the suffering of the victims of the drug war within the United States. And the situation within the US is only going to get worse, now that the CIA and the Pentagon are shifting resources from fighting drugs to “the war on terrorism.”
“The future of drug prohibition,” said Nadelmann, “is in reducing demand, through increasingly totalitarian means. In five years, we may have a situation where you get a choice between prison and an implanted chip that makes you sick if you use drugs.”
Joining Nadelmann in his lecture were two local voices in the drug war debate, CIDE professors Jorge Chabat and Bruce Bagley. Chabat, an expert on narco-trafficking who has been featured in the Latin American press recently advocating legalization, said he felt the current prohibitionist regime has “a problem understanding the role of the state. Law is confused with morality.” He was pessimistic, however, of Latin America’s ability to influence drug policy, because of the deep cultural roots of the prohibitionist ideology in American politics, and the differing natures of the drug problems of the two regions. “We have a trafficking problem, and you have a consumption problem,” he said.
(Correction: In an April 2000 Narco News report, we reported that Chabat was a newcomer to the legalization cause; in fact, he has advocated the same message since 1996.)
Professor Bagley, an American who teaches political science at the CIDE and who specializes in Colombia, emphasized internal political difficulties that block drug policy reform in the United States. The two-year election cycle, he said, leads to a situation where politicians constantly out-bid each other in anti-crime measures for election campaigns. This leads to an elimination of real debate on the drug issue. Also, he said, the prison guards’ union has emerged as a major lobbying force that maintains harsh policies of criminalization.
In the 1980s, Nadelmann was invited to major conferences mostly as “the heretic who gets two minutes at the end to throw a wrench into the discussion.” This week, he spent two days in private meetings at the Mexican foreign ministry before making his presentation at the CIDE. In the US, Nadelmann has access to US senators and committee chairs that would not have met with him a few years ago. (Nadelmann’s Drug Policy Alliance is the sponsor of Tides Foundation grants recently awarded to Narco News and others.)
“I really see myself as heading up a guerrilla struggle in America and around the world,” Nadelmann said at the end of his lecture to the small but enthusiastic crowd of students and professors at the CIDE. “On the other side is this goliath of the drug prohibition, with tens of billions of dollars per year, with massive institutions and laws. We have to find our opportunities. We have to see where is the public already with us.”
For more information on Ethan Nadelmann and the Drug Policy Alliance, see: http://www.drugpolicy.org
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