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| 9/7/2009 12:00:00 AM

Is America ready to admit defeat in its 40-year war on drugs?

A wave of decriminalisation is sweeping through Latin America

Is America ready to admit defeat in its 40-year war on drugs? Is America ready to admit defeat in its 40-year war on drugs?
Bruno Avangera, a 40-year-old web designer from Tucumán in Argentina, pauses to relight a half-smoked joint of cannabis. Then he speaks approvingly of "progress and the right decision" by the country's seven supreme court judges, who decided last week that prosecuting people for the private consumption of small amounts of narcotics was unconstitutional.

"Last year three of my friends were caught smoking a spliff in a park and were treated like traffickers," he said. "They went to court, which took six months. One went to jail alongside murderers. The others were sent to rehab, where they were treated for an addiction they didn't have, alongside serious heroin and crack users. It was pointless and destroyed their lives."

The court's ruling was based on a case involving several men caught with joints in their pockets. As a result, judges struck down an existing law stipulating a sentence of up to two years in jail for those caught with any amount of narcotics. "Each individual adult is responsible for making decisions freely about their desired lifestyle without state interference," the ruling said. "Private conduct is allowed unless it constitutes a real danger or causes damage to property or the rights of others."

Is the "war on drugs" ending? The Argentinian ruling does not stand alone. Across Latin America and Mexico, there is a wave of drug law reform which constitutes a stark rebuff to the United States as it prepares to mark the 40th anniversary of a conflict officially declared by President Richard Nixon and fronted by his wife, Pat, in 1969.

That "war" has incarcerated an average of a million US citizens a year, as every stratum of American society demonstrates its insatiable need to get high. And it has also engulfed not only America, but the Americas.

At El Paso at the end of the month, experts from the US and Mexico will gather to take stock and thrash out alternatives. El Paso stands cheek by jowl with its twin city, Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande. There, last Wednesday, the day after the Argentinian court ruling, cartel gunmen broke into the El Aliviane drug rehabilitation centre, lined 17 young people against a wall and cut them down with a fusillade of machine-gun fire. Troops last night captured the suspected killer, Jose Rodolfo Escajeda, considered one of the most brutal hitmen in Chihuahua and one of the leaders of the Juárez cartel. The executions, coming shortly after the killing of 40 people over three days in Juárez two weeks ago, take the death toll to about 1,400 this year, making it the most dangerous city in the world.

Never have the war on drugs and its flipside, the drug wars, raged so furiously as on this anniversary. Yet Mexico's is only the latest in a series of murderous conflicts that have scarred the pan-American war on drugs, starting with Operation Condor in the 1970s, whereby the US helped Mexico to obliterate poppy crops, only to give birth to the new cartels and institutionalised corruption.

Meanwhile, there have been catastrophic drug wars and narco-insurgency in Colombia, combining with political struggles to create the biggest internal displacement of people in the western hemisphere. Drug-related violence has blighted Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela and anywhere the Mexican and Colombian cocaine cartels sought their product. Latin America has also become a factory for synthetic drugs, much of it now under Mexican control.
 
Read more here.
 
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