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President Bush just snuck back into the White House after conducting a five country tour of Latin America. One of the main points on his agenda was to court its leaders into following the United States in their traditional drug prohibition strategies. In Bogotá, Colombia, he was greeted by protestors who were not impressed with the $700 million in aid to combat drug trafficking through Plan Columbia.
Despite Bush’s monetary incentives, elected officials up and down the Americas are looking at the violence in the streets and are beginning to question the failed U.S. drug prohibition model. The latest voice to join the choir was Rio de Janeiro’s governor, Sergio Cabral, who on February 23 called for legalizing drugs as a strategy to fight the ongoing drug-related gang violence that is devastating his state. He expressed hopes that this new approach would reduce the violent crime caused primarily by drug prohibition and the illicit markets it spawns.
Rio de Janeiro has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America, fueled by outbreaks of violence among different gangs, and between gangs and the police in the slums of Brazil’s favelas, where urban drug lords rule. Several months ago, one of the governor’s first acts was to ask the federal government to send a special security force to Rio following the eruption of gang violence that caused both civilian and police deaths.
“The governor is merely saying out loud what so many more think but fear to say,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Rio today is like Chicago under Al Capone–times ten. Reforming drug prohibition won’t be as quick and easy as repealing alcohol Prohibition was, but there’s no hope for breaking the drug-crime nexus unless many more elected officials heed Governor Cabral’s call.”
Not too long ago, a world away, a similar call was made in upstate New York by Erie County Executive Joel Giambra, fed up by the violence associated with the illegal drug trade. He went on to say his city streets had turned into war zones. Soon after, law enforcement officials condemned him. The same thing happened to Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, when he called for legalization of small amounts of some types of drugs. Prohibitionists went into overdrive to stop him and he withdrew his idea soon after.
The idea to change the failed policies of drug prohibition has been met with powerful resistance despite the devastation it inevitably brings to societies. It is time to step out of the darkness and into the light to seek a new strategy in our failed attempt of drug prohibition. We should welcome innovative leaders with new ideas that will make our world safer to live in, instead of condemning them.