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A federal police officer stands behind the line at a crime scene in the municipality of Guadalupe in Monterrey, April 10, 2012. Gunmen had shot dead seven taxi drivers on the outskirts of Monterrey, which has become one of Mexico's most violent cities during a turf war between rival drug cartels. (Daniel Becerrill/Reuters/Daniel Becerrill/Reuters)
A federal police officer stands behind the line at a crime scene in the municipality of Guadalupe in Monterrey, April 10, 2012. Gunmen had shot dead seven taxi drivers on the outskirts of Monterrey, which has become one of Mexico's most violent cities during a turf war between rival drug cartels. (Daniel Becerrill/Reuters/Daniel Becerrill/Reuters)

Globe Editorial

The drug war spreads instability Add to ...

The war on drugs doesn’t just cause human misery. It contributes to the political instability of many parts of the world, including Mexico, Central America and now West Africa.

The transnational criminal groups in control of the drug trade have successfully destabilized transit countries that stand between production and the market in Europe and North America. This underscores the unintended consequences of prohibition: the growth of a huge criminal black market financed by the profits of supplying demand for illegal drugs, and the “balloon” effect, whereby drug production and transit corridors shift location to avoid law enforcement. The war on drugs is inherently unwinnable, as the recent report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy concludes.

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Central America has emerged as the new epicentre in the illicit trade, as Mexican cartels are increasingly squeezed by President Felipe Calderon’s military initiative against them. There has been an extraordinary surge in crime in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, including kidnapping, drug trafficking and migrant smuggling. The drug economy in Guatemala is equal to twice the country’s officially recognized GDP. No wonder Central American leaders are demanding reforms to global drug policy.

Drug money is also perverting weak economies in West Africa, which has become a major transit repackaging hub for South American cocaine destined for Europe. There are fears it could next become a transit zone for cannabis.

Decriminalizing marijuana would substantially reduce the drug cartels’ power and wealth; cannabis accounts for 25 per cent to 40 per cent of cartels’ revenues. The resources of law enforcement should be reserved to battle the organized criminals who control the trade, and not wasted on individual drug users who cause harm only to themselves.

Countries such as Mali, Guinea Bissau and Liberia are ill-equipped to confront drug traffickers, and the judiciary and police are vulnerable to corruption. Cocaine seizures are worth more than some countries’ entire security budgets. “Narco-traffic threatens to metastasize into broader policy and security challenges,” notes the commission’s report.

Why should fragile states continue to bear the brunt of a futile anti-narcotics crusade? Instead, the world should strengthen the defences of states under attack, and help them build alternatives to the drug trade. Consumer countries should focus on reducing demand. Prohibition is far from being an adequate answer.

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