By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY, WSJ
Brazil's Fernando Henrique Cardoso on why legalization of marijuana will reduce the cartels' threat to Latin democracies
The classical argument in favor of marijuana legalization rests on personal liberty. Why, proponents ask, should the federal government tell free citizens what they may consume? It is also one reason why many conservatives fear it. They worry that legalization will mean more pot heads, an increase in the consumption of hard drugs, and a decrease in the quality of life for the sober and for society at large.
Former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso believes the opposite would occur. In an interview here last week he told me that his embrace of global marijuana decriminalization is aimed at reducing all drug use, bringing down violence, and diminishing what he sees as a serious and growing threat to democracy in Latin America.
Out of politics since 2003, when he finished his second four-year term as one of Brazil's most successful presidents, Mr. Cardoso is now a high-profile international advocate for ending the war on drugs. But he once held the opposite view.
Mr. Cardoso explains that as president he used traditional methods of "repression and prevention" to fight the drug problem. He is quick to add that neither worked. "Eradication was a failure," he says. Even though marijuana plants were destroyed—the government proudly took pictures of its handiwork—"later on, again, the crops were there." Meanwhile, the state made an "insufficient" effort toward prevention, in part because Brazil's drug problem "was not that bad at the time."
Mr. Cardoso says that after he left office and began to spend time in countries around the region, notably Colombia and Mexico, he recognized the depth and breadth of the problem. "I realized, my God, what is at stake now is much more than just the criminality. [It is] the institutions, the democracy, being jeopardized by cartels and even by repression [in] the way human rights are being violated."
Of course, the state's violation of civil liberties in the "drug war" was predictable since the narcotics business involves private transactions between voluntary parties. Policing such transactions requires informants, and it necessarily implies the broadening of state powers beyond what most liberal democracies view as legitimate.
But the cartels, made rich and powerful under prohibition and robust demand, also threaten democracy. Mr. Cardoso says "they corrupt institutions with money," but they also usurp the elected government's authority over what they see as their turf.
This is what happened in Colombia, he says, where the government had to "fight cartels and guerrillas together, plus paramilitary and militia groups." Now the same thing is happening in Rio, where armed groups "have corrupt relationships with the police and with politicians" and need to "occupy areas [in order] to produce . . . and to distribute drugs." In these areas the population loses its democratic rights. "As long as [traffickers] are occupying one area, the state is out of that area. They have their own rules, their own law, and very often it is very harsh." When the government rightly tries to reassert its authority in these areas, violence increases.
Mr. Cardoso says that the overwhelming evidence in drug-abuse research shows that a "war" such as the U.S. envisions, "aiming for zero consumption and no production of drugs," is the wrong approach. Yet it is the global status quo "being enforced by all nations because the U.N. today assumes that this is how to deal with drugs."
Mr. Cardoso maintains that it is time for change. He points to the successful experience of some European states where marijuana has been decriminalized so that the recreational use of pot is permitted and addicts are treated.
Portugal is one example, he says. There, spiraling rates of marijuana consumption prior to decriminalization have been reversed. His own interviews—and the broader data—show that a combination of education, treatment and decriminalization, which makes marijuana no longer a forbidden temptation among the young, explains why use is no longer going up.
There are other benefits to decriminalization. By eliminating the need to chase marijuana consumers, Mr. Cardoso says, the state can focus on fighting organized crime. And those gangsters are likely to have fewer customers.
As it stands now "the young people have to enter into contact with drug traffickers to buy marijuana and the traffickers will induce the young people to jump from marijuana to hard drugs because they are more profitable. So you have to break the contact," he argues. There is also the problem that Brazilian prisons are brimming with inmates serving time for trafficking because they were caught with amounts of pot above the legal limit. Decriminalization would reduce rates of incarceration and the large number of lives ruined by prison systems that teach people how to become criminals.
Mr. Cardoso accepts that "the question is a political question." But he doesn't expect politicians in Washington or Brasilia to provide the answer. "To my mind what is important is civil society being involved in this discussion. I don't view the state being even capable of change without strong pressure from civil society."