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Few topics seem to be gaining as much traction, or courting as much controversy, across the Americas as the regulation of drugs.

Following the steps of Uruguay, Canada has just legalized the use of marijuana and other countries are debating similar new laws.

And although some countries, such as Colombia and the United States, continue to support prohibitionist policies, legalization is seeing ever more support strength as an alternative to repressive measures.

      SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

The Global Commission on Drug Policy, an independent panel of experts, former heads of state and intellectuals, stated in its most recent report that drug regulation is the best way to counteract the power of criminal organizations.

InSight Crime spoke with one of its members, former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos, about the present and future of one of the most controversial issues in the region.

InSight Crime (IC): What is currently being discussed in the drug regulation debate?  

President Ricardo Lagos (RL): Simply saying that all drugs are illegal and that they will be eliminated is not enough. This has not worked.

When the army also doesn’t help, what can be done? That’s where the big issue lies.

This is a deep and difficult topic, there are no easy answers.

We believe that it is possible to take a different approach to drugs, by regulating them similarly to alcohol and tobacco.

There is a certain amount of trial and error involved but we do see that when certain measures are taken, changes happen.

For example, addicts who are no longer going to recovery and who will go to any lengths, including committing a crime, to get their drugs must be treated in healthcare systems.

With this single measure alone, we would remove one-third of the global demand for drugs, and one-third of the revenue of criminal organizations.

IC: There seem to be two schools of thought in Latin America: certain countries are experimenting with legalizating certain drugs (Uruguay) and others are completely against it (Colombia).  

RL: Ten years ago, when drug regulation began to be discussed, it was difficult to do so. Today, the issue has gained an important sense of legitimacy.

However, we are far from having solved the issue but the need to discuss it is accepted. There is a long way to go as the perception remains that legalizing consumption carries a lot of risks. And [it is not known] to what extent legalization in one country can impact others.

IC: What progress and challenges have you seen?

RL: I think there has been a lot of progress.

In Chile, the fact that (legalizing) the personal consumption of medicinal cannabis is being discussed is a sign of progress.

The most important thing to understand is that this is not a matter of domestic policy. An international approach is needed in the fight against drugs.

The key thing is to see gradual progress and maintain good interaction with the citizens. It is not enough for legislation to begin and end in Congress, it must involve a dialogue with society.

IC: What do you think of Uruguay’s experience?

RL: Uruguay is ahead. But it is a small country and is not a drug producer. This makes the approach easier there.

In many countries, drugs are intimately linked to poverty. This brings in an additional element: how regulating drugs is fought in circumstances of extreme poverty where the drug has such an important space.

There is no rule that works for everyone. Each country is different with different experiences. What works in Uruguay, for example, may not work in Chile and what works in Chile [may] not work in Brazil.

IC: What is the difference between regulating drugs such as marijuana, which is more advanced, and cocaine, which is not being debated yet?

RL: This debate is beginning to take place. It is one thing to regulate cannabis, as has been done in several countries, and another thing altogether to discuss regulating cocaine and stronger drugs.

There should be a far more effective policy on the hardest drugs, focusing for example on the smallest core of drug consumers that cannot be cured.

IC: What do you think of the Portuguese model? Could it be applied to Latin America?

RL: Portugal’s experience can be criticized as it increased the demand for drugs. This is often brought up as a question during drug regulation debates. But we would need to see to what extent this increase in demand is artificial due to the novelty, and whether it then stabilizes.

In any case, it is clear that there are risks when dealing with these issues.

Just as there are campaigns for people not to smoke or drink, one should be carried out to get people off drugs.

These are some of the challenges that arise when a single country regulates drugs. There has to be some coordination with neighboring countries.

The drug markets require integrated policies at the regional level.

IC: What are the main challenges facing drug regulation?

RL: The main challenge is that any legislation has to be the subject of intense debate by society. (Such legislation) cannot be carried out as if it was technical regulation as this involves vast sectors of society.

And any change has to be gradual. The natural thing is to completely reject drugs so any debate must begin slow, revealing and explaining various points of view. In this way, the debate becomes richer as each country becomes a unique experience.

*The transcription of this interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Photo: AP/Gregory Bull

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