A little over a century ago, before drug prohibition became a priority, the market for substances like marijuana and cocaine did not generate bloodshed. When President Richard Nixon in 1971 declared drug abuse “public enemy No. 1 in the United States,” he spoke of a “worldwide offensive.” As the war on drugs unfolded, the United States inspired and even funded many law enforcement models in Latin America.
More recently, Uruguay legalized recreational cannabis in 2017. Other Latin American countries have partially decriminalized some substances, and leaders from across the political spectrum, including presidents and former presidents, have been vocal about the need to end the war on drugs. Decriminalization efforts can produce unusual alliances. They will require transnational coordination. Given the devastating consequences to black and brown communities, we can frame that discussion as a key part of global anti-racist agendas.
It has become almost a cliché to say that the U.S.-led war on drugs failed. If the intent is to save lives in the United States from substance abuse, the results are mixed at best. Other approaches, like legalization and decriminalization of some drugs, are certainly more cost-effective. If the intent is to reward corrupt actors while propping up arms manufacturers, the prison industry and entrenched law enforcement bureaucracies, then the war on drugs has been successful. Some Latin American governments insist on copying the most profit-seeking aspects of the American system, like private prisons. In the United States several states are seeking to reform criminal justice, by decriminalizing marijuana and curbing mass incarceration.
Throughout the Americas, police officers still arrest hundreds of thousands of people for marijuana-related offenses every year. Black and brown people continue to bear the brunt of repressive measures. In the United States public opinion has shifted toward the legalization of cannabis and broadly opposes war-on-drugs methods. It is hard to imagine radical changes at a hemispheric scale without U.S. leadership.
We need to rethink drug policies. Decriminalization is working well in Portugal, for instance. At the local level, it creates opportunities to redirect funding away from weapons and drug-busting, toward social and health services. To think of a regulated legal drug trade as a source of revenue can open up discussions about the possibilities of reparations to address legacies of systemic racism.
Decriminalization and legalization will never be a cure-all. There are also as many questions as answers when it comes to how it should be done. But this is a time of reckoning and to reimagine the future. Bringing the war on drugs to an end could be a major step toward curtailing violence, saving countless lives caught in the crossfire. João Pedro’s life matters.
Bruno Carvalho is a professor at Harvard, where he is a co-director of the Harvard Mellon Urban Initiative and is affiliated with the Afro-Latin American Research Institute.
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By Bruno Carvalho
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