On Wednesday, May 28, Hannah Hetzer, policy manager of the Americas at the US-based Drug Policy Alliance, hosted the webinar “Is the War on Drugs a Lost Cause?” At the invitation of EsLibertad, the Latin-American branch of Students For Liberty, she spoke (in Spanish) about the consequences of the drug war, as well as potential solutions.
As Hetzer explained, the war on drugs — now more than four decades old — is responsible for devastating human costs. Since 2006, prohibition-fueled drug trafficking in Mexico has resulted in approximately 100,000 homicides and thousands of disappearances. Sadly, Central America has become the region with the highest homicide rates in the world, and 25 percent of all US incarcerations are now linked to drugs.
The War on Justice and Victimless “Crimes”
“In the United States, we are living in a perverse system, where there is no proportionality of sentences,” Hetzer explained to the many attendees. Race, in particular, has also become embroiled in the drug war. Although blacks, whites, and Hispanics consume and sell drugs at similar rates, she asserted, blacks and Hispanics, are punished at eight times the rate of whites.
Furthermore, people who commit drug-related crimes are often put in jail for longer periods than those who commit rape or murder. This same system of justice has been exported to other countries, such as Ecuador, Bolivia, and Mexico, where the “addiction to punishment” phenomenon is well-known.
Hetzer contended that since crimes in the drug world are divided in two categories, violent and non-violent, it is unfair to treat them equally.
Based on the history of prohibition in the United States during the 1920s, it is evident that deprivation enforcement of illicit substances fails. On the contrary, drug-trafficking organizations have had the power to manipulate the justice system and corrupt society. The consequent violence, as cartels battle for dominance in an area, and the hidden use of drugs have undermined both public safety and public health.
“Those who are opposed to reforming drug policies use public health as an excuse, but the truth is that there are more deaths due to violence linked to drug trafficking than to drug consumption,” said Hetzer.
Smarter Alternatives: “Harm Reduction”
Hetzer believes that since most people use drugs in some form or another, such as coffee or alcohol, drug use must be separated into two categories: problematic and non-problematic. According to Hetzer, problematic drug usage rates are at around 10 percent, while we are all vulnerable to the associated violence — which demonstrates that public health is not as big of a concern as public safety.
“Protecting us from using drugs does not depend on the state,” Hetzer said. Instead of “correcting” nonviolent behavior and helping individuals overcome their addictions, prison sentences are only making the situation worse. She believes the only thing that can demonstrate results and improve people’s lives is voluntary treatment, but she can accept a policy of “damage reduction” instead of heavy-handed prohibition.
“A world without drugs does not exist, and it will never exist,” emphasized Hetzer, regarding drug policies that strive for the unreachable goal of a “drug-free world.” She cited studies to demonstrate that the countries with the strictest drug policies are not very different from any others when it comes to consumption.
A perfect example of “damage reduction,” according to Hetzer, is a needle-exchange program. Using drugs with needles and sharing them with others can result in illnesses, such as HIV and Hepatitis C, so to reduce this risk, clean needles should be provided. Consequently, new and clean needles for intravenous-drug users have reduced the transmission of illnesses, even though usage rates remain the same.
On the legal side, Hetzer spoke about the decriminalization of drugs as another viable alternative — simply lessening the sentences to a fine. This leads us to the case of Portugal. In 2001, Portugal was going through a critical time with regards to problematic drug use, so those in the central government decided to decriminalize the use of all types of drugs. This “experiment,” as the policy manager calls it, has been a total success. The transmission of illnesses and overdose rates have decreased, and more people are getting medical treatment to overcome addition, thereby reducing the number of people who use problematic drugs.
Hezter has also worked with the marijuana regulation campaign carried out in Uruguay, which became the first country to legalize marijuana in December 2013. The policy manager pointed out that the purpose of this campaign was to help society by making the medicinal benefits of marijuana accessible and investing in the industry to help people better their lives.