Originally published on the Huffington Post, June 23, 2010
Drug trafficking, and all of its related ills, presents one of the most potent threats to democracy and stability in the Western Hemisphere today. Growing drug-related violence in Mexico has claimed over 5,000 lives in the past year alone. This week, the government of Jamaica captured an accused drug kingpin after a month-long search resulting in a state of emergency and dozens of deaths. Colombia continues a decades-old struggle against armed groups principally financed by the production and sale of cocaine. And the United States is mobilizing 1,200 additional National Guard troops to confront gang and drug-related violence along its southern border.
The outbursts of violence and use of force only tells part of the story. Drug trade-related violence is linked directly to the rising levels of drug use around the hemisphere. While progress has been made in recent years in disrupting the production and flow of illicit drugs, more needs to be done to curb drug use, which represents an increasing social and economic cost to our societies.
This month, the member countries of the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted a new hemispheric drug strategy that will help countries develop policies to focus not only on supply and control, but also on drug dependence. The strategy explicitly recognizes that drug dependency is a chronic, relapsing disease that must be dealt with as a core element of public health policy. It is a disease on par with diabetes, hypertension or asthma that requires proper medical care to treat the underlying causes.
This new OAS strategy goes hand in hand with the recent shift in drug policy announced by the United States. President Barack Obama's pledge to allocate more resources to drug prevention and treatment parallels the hemispheric view that drug abuse and dependence are public health issues, and not just criminal acts. We welcome this evidence-based policy shift, which is guided by sound principles of public health, safety and the respect for human rights.
Similarly, among its recommendations, the new OAS drug strategy promotes treatment as an alternative to incarceration. It includes the establishment of drug courts where recovery is closely supervised by a judge with the power to reward progress and rebuke relapses. This approach, now fairly widespread in the United States but less common elsewhere, has proven successful in reducing repeat offenses and relapse into drug use.
However, other efforts that consider the possibility of relapse are also necessary. In this regard, the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission, a specialized OAS agency, is successfully training drug treatment counselors and therapists to help certify these experts, thereby enhancing the quality of services throughout Latin America.
As a first step of a comprehensive approach to confront the intertwined challenges of drug trafficking and drug dependency, it is crucial that nations of the Americas include an emphasis on the root cause of the problem- the consumption of illicit drugs. Approximately 20 percent of drug users account for nearly 80 percent of drug use. By progressively reducing dependence among hard core drug users, our programs not only help reduce the demand for drugs but they also affect the profitability of the transnational criminal organizations that threaten the economies, the security, and the democratic governance of our hemisphere.
Recurring drug-related violence throughout the region reminds us that a multilateral approach is fundamental to address the complex and dynamic drug problem. A combination of logistical resources, intellectual capital, and political will are needed if we are to stem the tide of this border-less scourge. Lives are being destroyed, governments are being challenged, and economies are being pressured at an ever-increasing level. The time has come for our member states, and nations throughout the world, to make this moral imperative a top strategic priority. The time has come for new ideas, for a more forward-thinking dialogue, and for ever more proactive action.
updated on 1/24/2011 12:37:05 PM