When the 2nd World War came to a close, the establishment of the U.N. was supposed to usher in a new era of peace. Yet as the 20th century has turned into the 21st, the new status quo of the international order was shown not to be an end of wars but an end of wars that end. Before we had the interminable ‘War on Terror’, we had the ‘War on Drugs’ which laid the blueprint for how to launch an attack on an inexhaustible entity. Having been overshadowed by its successor for the last decade, recently the ‘War on Drugs’ has re-entered the public consciousness but it seems like there are now fewer and fewer soldiers still committed to the fight. Colorado and Washington State may be leading the domestic battle against prohibition in the U.S., but internationally the big moves are being made in Latin America, with Uruguay placing itself at vanguard of this movement with its legalization of marijuana last week. This was an action that would have been unthinkable 15 years ago, not just because of the public hysteria regarding narcotics but also because back then, it was unimaginable that a Latin America would have the geopolitical autonomy required break from the prohibitionist absolutism that defined global drug policy.
Currently, the legal architecture of international drug control is defined by three United Nations international Conventions: The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961; The Convention on Psychotropic Substances 1971; and The Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances 1988. Before these conventions U.S initiatives regarding international prohibition were often met with ambivalence from the traditional colonial powers who held lucrative drug monopolies in overseas possessions. Nowadays when we talk about drugs, we often forget the crucial role that stimulants, both licit and illicit, played in formation and maintenance of Western hegemony, from the British expansion in Asia (opium, tea) and North Africa (khat, coffee) to the establishment of the ‘new worlds’ of the Americas (sugar, rum). By 1961 however, there was a new world order and under U.S pressure, the U.N. began to try and face up to the ‘drug problem.’ Yet, although the ‘problem’ was largely one of western consumption, the 1961 convention ensured the most stringent controls were placed on producing the raw organic materials (opium, coca, cannabis) and their derivatives (heroin and cocaine), which resulted in the weight of prohibition landing on the developing states where these plants were grown.
Nowhere felt this weight heavier than Latin America, where drug cartels and the violence they bring with them has been the cause of crisis from Bogota to Buenos Aires. The negatives externalities that come from prohibition have turned Mexico into one of the world’s most dangerous countries with more than 60,000 people killed in drug-related violence since late 2006. However, this violence has not only been a point of concern for the Hispanic countries; ever since Nixon gave birth to the phrase ‘the War on drugs’ in 1971, counter-narcotics policy has meant to U.S led initiatives taking place in Latin America that have only succeeded in perpetuating the bloodshed. In Colombia, where it was felt that the drugs trade was fueling radical opposition groups such as the FARC and ELN, the U.S. spent over $7 billion on the security initiative of Plan Colombia to tackle the narco-traffickers. The ‘War on Drugs’ has been a bi-partisan project, with Presidents from both U.S. parties continuing to pursue this method of trying to combat drugs. Yet it must also be remembered that there is a history of Western governmental cooperation with suspected narco-state leaders in order to satisfy over-riding geopolitical concerns, from Lyndon Pindling in the Bahamas to, most infamously, General Noriega in Panama. Internationally drug prohibition has always targeted the easy pickings, it has always focused on the impoverished agricultural worker who grows marijuana or the unfortunate mule, trying to sneak a rucksack full of cocaine rather over the border. It rarely targets the circulation of weapons going from the North to the South that keep the blood in Juarez flowing. Nor does it seek to destroy of the immunity granted to Western financial institutions who abet traffickers. In the December of 2012, HSBC were forced to admit that over $881m in drug trafficking money had been laundered throughout the bank’s accounts. They were fined $1.9bn which may seem a lot to you and me but is pennies to an institution like HSBC. Nobody went to jail or was fired, while the consequences are of course far more serious to small-time street dealers. As The Wire told us: You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you.
Unsurprisingly, after decades of chaos with no end site, Latin America as a region has began to use its growing political and economic autonomy to revisit its methods of tackling drugs. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina has repeatedly spoken out in favour of ending prohibition. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said explicitly, “It is time to think again about the war on drugs” However it is Uruguay that has stolen the march on all these nations by last week passing an unprecedented bill that legalizes and regulates the production, distribution, and sale of marijuana for adult consumers. While the popular movement to end the drug war has been growing in the U.S and Europe, it is from the Global South that real change appears to be originating, providing further evidencing of the on-going shift in the tectonic plates of our international order. And should the Uruguayan experiment be successful and more Latin American countries follow suit, the U.S. and Europe, the self-appointed bastions of liberty and democracy will start to look a bit stupid if they are left as holding on to prohibition while the ‘developing’ nations are the ones granting their peoples demands to change their counter-effective drug laws.