NEW YORK — When I read the news that the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy “blasted the U.S.-led drug war as a failure that is pushing Latin American societies to the breaking point” (Wall Street Journal, Feb. 12), I thought: Someone is finally talking sense. I have long regarded the U.S. approach to drugs as self- righteous, overbearing and destructive.

This is not the first time the U.S. “war on drugs,” which President Richard Nixon started back in 1971, has been pronounced a failure. Five years ago, for example, none other than President George W. Bush’s “drug czar,” John Walters, admitted that the “war” was failing. Of course, Walters, a hard-nosed conservative, made it clear that the U.S. had no intention of abandoning it. Today, he insists that intensified drug-related violence in Mexico — 4,000 people killed in 2008 alone — is a sign that the U.S. war is succeeding.

There have been more recent judgments. Late last year, Ernest Zedillo, former president of Mexico, wrote in a Brookings Institution report that “current U.S. counternarcotics policies are failing by most objective measures.”

Just about the same time, the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO), “the investigative arm of Congress,” came to a conclusion not as negative, but not positive, either: The “drug reduction goals” of Plan Colombia were “not fully met,” the report said. Under that plan, which Bush greatly expanded, the U.S. has given $4.9 billion to Colombia’s military and National Police since 2000, making that country the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid.

Yet, from 2000 to 2006, even as “opium poppy cultivation and heroin production declined about 50 percent,” the report said, “coca cultivation and cocaine production levels increased by about 15 and 4 percent.” As is often pointed out, coca plants have special dietary and medicinal roles to play for certain groups of people in Colombia.

The difference this time, it appears, is that the Latin American Commission, in its brief statement, doesn’t beat around the bush. The three former presidents who head the commission — Zedillo, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil) and Cesar Gaviria (Colombia) — call for “a paradigm shift,” telling the U.S. that its policy, particularly as it affects their countries, is wholly misguided.

“Prohibitionist policies,” they state, “have not yielded the expected results.” Instead, “the eradication of production,” “the disruption of drug flows” and “the criminalization of consumption” are wreaking human and social havoc that is “growing worse by the day.”

The word “prohibition” immediately brings to mind “The Noble Experiment”: the ban on “the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors” that was enacted as a U.S. constitutional amendment in 1919 and turned this country into a gangland. The prohibition this time has created far more destructive organized crime. It deploys the military, not just heavily armed police. In the present prohibition, the United States is waging a proxy war in foreign lands to deal with its own domestic problem, destroying a great many people in the process.

“U.S.-funded helicopters have provided the air mobility needed to rapidly move Colombian counternarcotics and counterinsurgency forces,” observes the GAO report. Note “counterinsurgency forces.” It was prepared for U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, now vice president.

“U.S. advisers, training, equipment, and intelligence assistance have also helped professionalize Colombia’s military and police forces,” Jess Ford, who put together the report, notes in an insouciant tone that is possible only to someone who knows his country can lord it over the world.

Remember how Americans cheerfully supported Bush when he went to war with a country that hadn’t even attacked their country? How rampant the talk of attacking Iran, yet another country that hasn’t done much harm to America?

With equal insouciance, Ford talks about “a number of achievements,” which include “the aerial and manual eradication of hundreds of thousands of hectares of coca, the seizure of tons of cocaine, and the capture or killing of a number of illegal armed group leaders and thousands of combatants.” Aerial eradication. Did Ford pause for a moment to think about Agent Orange, the herbicide warfare in Vietnam?

For a paradigm shift, the Latin American Commission urges that “the association of drugs with crime” be dropped. That is, decriminalize drugs and drug use. As important, switch the focus from eradicating production to reducing consumption, the commission argues. Drug decriminalization is one thing a number of U.S. organizations have advocated, among them Law Enforcement against Prohibition, a group of police officers and judges opposed to the four-decade-old U.S. “war on drugs.”

Among the reports urging eradication of at least one type of “drug” from illegality is one prepared by Jeffrey Miron. In “The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition in the United States,” Miron, a visiting professor at Harvard, proposes treating marijuana like any of the alcoholic beverages and taxing it. More than 500 economists have endorsed his idea. The Latin American Commission is exasperated that the U.S. treats marijuana, or cannabis, as “a drug.”

When it comes to reducing consumption, the U.S. puts the horse before the cart. Why punish the producer and seller, and not the buyer and user? Where there is no demand, there should be no supply. Attempts to regulate production and sale of guns consistently fail in this country. Why force that approach on drugs?

Yes, the U.S. makes “drug arrests.” The number, steadily increasing, reached 1.89 million in 2006, the FBI reports. Apparently, large proportions of those arrested are not jailed, and that’s good. But the number of those jailed is still large. Drug violators are estimated to account for a quarter of the 2.3 million in prison in 2007.

One odd aspect of this is that four-fifths of those imprisoned drug violators are for possession, not for use. Does that explain why musicians, writers and movie stars talk about their drug use in books and TV shows openly, with impunity?

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.