Can Drug Regulation Help Tackle Organized Crime?

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A recent report argues that regulating illegal drugs can help governments tackle organized crime, adding to a growing number of voices calling for the decriminalization of personal drug use. But can this momentum turn into real change?

The report, by the Global Commission on Drugs, advances the idea that the illegal drug trade only benefits transnational criminal groups while the countries in which they operate suffer the consequences.

The report’s authors argue that criminal organizations take advantage of drug prohibition as they control, and profit from, every aspect of the production and distribution chain.

“Every region in the world suffers: from violence induced by turf wars over production areas and transit routes, from corruption and connivance of state institutions, and from laundering of drug money, which damages the legal economy,” Ruth Dreifuss, chair of the group and former president of Switzerland, said in the report.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

The report’s authors propose decriminalizing and regulating illegal drugs, using the approach currently seen with alcohol and tobacco. This includes, for example, banning consumption for minors, imposing high taxes and investing in public health campaigns to discourage consumption.

The commission is made up of a panel of world leaders and intellectuals, including several former Latin American presidents, such as Ricardo Lagos of Chile, César Gaviria of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, among others.

InSight Crime Analysis

The suggestion that regulating drugs can help tackle organized crime is not new, but it is gaining momentum in Latin America, particularly with the recent legalization of marijuana in Canada and Uruguay.

“I think there has been progress. Ten years ago, the debate over drug regulation was a very difficult one. Today, we can at least talk about the issue,” Ricardo Lagos, a former Chilean president and a member of the Global Commission on Drugs, told InSight Crime.

The debate over drug regulation comes after hard-hitting strategies have failed in countries such as Colombia and Mexico, which are also at the center of the drug trade. Coca cultivation in Colombia is currently at an all-time high, while violence in Mexico has reached unprecedented levels.

Those arguing for drug regulation are pushing to treat illegal drugs as other harmful substances like tobacco and alcohol.

This, they say, would immediately cut criminal organizations’ profits. Governments could then tackle addiction through rehabilitation programs and offset the costs with new tax strategies.

Decriminalizing drugs would not immediately wipe out all criminal organizations, which have diverse criminal portfolios and are likely to move into other illegal economies. But this would be a positive first step, though governments would also need an effective strategy to tackle money laundering and corruption.

Latin America is still a long way from full-scale drug legalization, such as that seen in Portugal, or even debating the regulation of so-called “hard-drugs,” such as cocaine. But experiments with marijuana legalization in Uruguay and, more recently, in Canada, provide some clues on how it could work.

Experts at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) think tank and the Brookings Institution reported on the status of marijuana legalization in Uruguay nearly a year after it went into effect in 2013.

They identified a number of challenges in the early implementation of the law, including the system’s ability to meet demand and issues posed by the fact that US banks cannot do businesses with companies involved in the sale or distribution of a controlled substance, including marijuana. But experts said that the future of the industry is still positive, as most of these issues can likely be overcome by policy changes and continued education and experience.

But a number of world leaders are against any form of drug decriminalization.

Ahead of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018, US President Donald Trump urged all nations to sign a pledge to combat the drug trade through “a four-pronged strategy.” That strategy, which did not tackle proposals for regulation, focused on reducing drug demand, boosting treatment for drug abuse, deepening multinational law enforcement cooperation and reducing drug supplies. The pledge was an unusual move given that the United Nations’ drug policy is typically decided by deliberation and consensus.

Colombia was one of the countries to support the plan.

President Iván Duque recently banned the personal use of small amounts of cocaine and marijuana. On Oct. 1, he signed  a decree that authorizes the police to search people and confiscate any quantity of drugs they have on them. The order invalidated a ruling from the Constitutional Court that gave people the right to carry small doses of drugs for personal use.

Despite the challenges, former President Lagos remains positive and believes the key to tackling criminal organizations is to achieve a regional consensus to regulate personal drug consumption.

“It is not enough for legislators to pass laws,” he said. “It is essential for society to discuss these important issues and to understand that this is not an issue that can be resolved at the national level, it needs an international approach”.

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