The Drug War Vs. Civilization – The Evidence that Civilization May Yet Win

By Sanho Tree 02/05/14

Sanity is finally emerging in the U.S. and much of the world in reaction to the madness of the war against drugs. One of the world’s foremost drug war experts details why we are likely at a tipping point. Part 2 of a two part series.  


Sanho Tree is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and director of its Drug Policy Project, which works to end the domestic and international “War on Drugs” and replace it with policies that promote public health and safety. The project focuses on both the dysfunction of domestic politics and the collateral damage caused by the U.S. exporting its failed drug war to Colombia, Bolivia, Mexico, Afghanistan and other countries. The project develops new mechanisms to establish humane and sustainable alternatives to the drug war, such as tax and regulate models of cannabis control. Sanho has been featured in over a dozen documentary films and has appeared in hundreds of print and broadcast interviews. This two-part series is an edited version of a talk Tree gave which was recorded by Alternative Radio in Colorado.. 

What you have done here in Colorado and in Washington state with marijuana legalization, I don’t know if you appreciate the international ramifications of this, but they’re huge. When the voters came out so strongly in these two states, it really sent a signal across the world that the citizens of the U.S. - forget the politicians, who are always worried about reelection – have had enough of the war on drugs, particularly the war on cannabis, and they’re willing to experiment and talk about regulation.

This has sent a shock wave around the world. Things that have been building up to a tipping point for many years now: the drug war in Mexico, Colombia and Afghanistan, our domestic war on drugs. There are many countries that have wanted to talk about alternative models, different ways of approaching the drug problem, and have been held back, especially by the U.S. The U.S. has been historically the biggest drug warrior nation. We fund the drug war in many countries in Latin America and around the world. It’s been a monolithic model. 

Voters have shown that as a society we’re ready to move beyond cannabis prohibition. We’re not talking about cocaine and heroin and other harder drugs yet. The new Gallup poll just came out. Fifty-eight percent nationwide now believe in regulating cannabis. That is staggering. It was 51% a couple of months ago, so it’s jumping up and up - it’s a real tipping point. We knew this was coming; we just didn’t know when it was coming. I’ve been working on this issue for 15 years, and I’ve seen more change in this past year than in the previous 14. So you’re living in a remarkable time, and the voters of Colorado have done a tremendous deed for the rest of the world.

Let’s start at the top of the hemisphere - Canada. There’s change in the wind there, although the Harper government, a very conservative government, wants to sound tough on drugs. They want mandatory minimums. They want to copy the American model. Some people call them “Bush Lite.” But the public in Canada as a whole is moving in a different direction. More and more provinces are trying to liberalize their laws. Vancouver, in British Columbia, is doing tremendous stuff. They’ve had this safe-injection site called InSite that’s been operating for over a decade now, and it’s remarkable. They have a high population of heroin addicts, and they deal with it in a very different way from, say, Baltimore or other places in the U.S. 

They implemented harm-reduction policies. They actually set up a supervised injection site, where addicts could bring heroin that they purchased on the street into a safe place. There will be a doctor, a nurse on duty. It’s a clean environment. You no longer have needles lining the alleys. The overdose deaths have dropped to zero - from about 17 a year. It’s remarkable. The spread of HIV has been diminished considerably. And because it’s a harm-reduction facility, there are also people there who are experts in treatment. So when people are ready to give up, they’re there. And they, of course, have national health care, so it’s paid for. Canada has been leading for a long time. The Harper government is a little bump in the road. Nonetheless, the culture is moving and evolving.

In Latin America [progress] has been going on for a number of years now. A few years ago the global commission on drugs was formed. It was initially led by the former presidents of Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia. You had Ernesto Zedillo from Mexico, César Gaviria from Colombia, and Enrique Cardozo from Brazil. These three now former heads of state have since come out against the war on drugs. A lot more people have joined them - from Jimmy Carter to Kofi Annan, and Richard Branson. 

Now you also have current heads of state coming out against the war on drugs. This was unthinkable just a few years ago because of the reprisals the U.S. State Department would inflict upon them and also because of the international opprobrium, the U.N. conventions that govern the international war on drugs. A lot more political space has opened up - and thanks to Colorado and Washington states, it’s opened up [even] a lot more. 

In Uruguay, for instance, they’re going to legalize marijuana and have state control and state stores. And if you are a registered user, you can purchase it. They’re doing this proactively because they saw what happened [in Brazil and Argentina] with paco, or bazuco, which is a kind of crack that is fiercely addictive, very destructive. They’re doing it proactively to take the power away from the cartels, from the criminal gangs. 

Because marijuana was an easy source of revenue for them, they’re going to take that away [from the gangs] and try to head off what was heading down the road towards them [with paco]. They announced this week that the price they’re going to set at the state stores is $1 a gram. Just a couple of months ago they were estimating $2.50 a gram., but now it’s down to a dollar. That’s remarkable.  President Mujica has been very visionary. Even though the marijuana legalization initiative in Uruguay has not won the majority of public opinion, he’s still doing this. It’s a very courageous and proactive move, and it’s getting traction. 

Guatemala is also now a leading country speaking out against the war on drugs. President Otto Perez Molina is a bit of a problematic figure. If any of you have studied human rights or Central American history in the 1980s, he was involved in some pretty heavy stuff. But he has also come out and said that the war on drugs has failed. He wants to talk about alternatives. He said so in front of the United Nations General Assembly. This is remarkable. 

There are a variety of reasons why he’s doing that. One of them, perhaps, is to play the U.S a little bit, to try to get military aid restored because one of his constituencies is the military. But he’s also quite honest and pragmatic. There’s no way a country as poor as Guatemala can fight these international drug cartels. Guatemala is saying,  “Look, we can’t possibly fight them. They can bribe all of our soldiers, all of our police, high-ranking politicians. For them it’s a tax; it’s the price of doing business. It doesn’t really hurt their profits.” Much easier to bribe your way through than to shoot your way through. The same with Mexico and the same with so many other countries: they simply can’t afford to fight these trafficking organizations because of the amount of money that is available to them.


In Mexico, President Calderón, who finally left office in 2012, fought the drug war the way the U.S. wanted him to - did everything that he was supposed to do. He was a good ally, threw 50,000 troops at this problem - and made the problem infinitely worse. By last count there were about 60,000 casualties that were directly attributable to the war on drugs. Then they stopped keeping records, stopped counting, because they couldn’t figure out which were drug-related killings, which were not. The more recent figures are maybe 80,000 dead, maybe 20,000 missing. This is a horrific price to pay for enforcing policies that the gringos basically are demanding that Mexico impose.

In 2012, President Calderón, in his last months in office, gave a remarkable speech at the UN General Assembly. The first 20 minutes were a pretty generic talk, and the last 20 minutes blew me away. He came out and blasted prohibition. The drug war has failed. He said that if consumer nations like the U.S. could not significantly reduce demand - it’s not going to happen anytime soon - then we have to talk about market solutions. That’s a diplomatic code word for ending prohibition and moving towards a regulatory framework.  

This is our number one drug war ally, who received all this aid, who squandered all these lives, saying, “I’ve done it, it didn’t work, it’s not working.” Perhaps he was looking forward toward his legacy and trying to repair his image, but I’m glad he said what he said. It was remarkable.

Colombia, which has been, again, a huge ally of the U.S. in the war on drugs, is now rethinking its policies. President Santos was elected a couple of years ago and it’s important to remember that in 1998 he signed a very famous letter addressed to the United Nations. In 1998 there was an UNGASS, they call it, a UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs. There was a famous two-page ad opposing the war on drugs taken out in The New York Times signed by everyone from [famed conservative economist] Milton Friedman to [former Republican Secretary of State] George Shultz. And down that list was President Santos, who was a relatively obscure figure back then. He has long been a critic of the war on drugs, and he is now criticizing it openly. He’s one of the Latin American leaders saying we need to think about it in a different framework.

Costa Rica has spoken out, El Salvador has to a lesser extent. [El Salvador] President Funes initially jumped on board when Guatemala spoke out against this but was immediately smacked down by his own party because it was an election year domestically. Bolivia is an early country that opposed the U.S. war on drugs, for very different reasons. When Bolivia elected President Evo Morales, it was a clear signal to the U.S. Washington cracked down hard and tried to impose draconian policies and meddle in Bolivian affairs. He’s the first indigenous leader of the country in how many centuries – but he also was the leader of the coca growers union. These are unionized coca growers. 

There is a long tradition in the Andes of chewing coca for traditional use. Coca in its natural state is a perfectly fine drug, in my opinion. It’s extremely mild. You can’t abuse it in its natural state, unless you swallow it. You don’t want to swallow the leaf but you can chew it or put it in tea or grind it into flour. It’s full of protein and vitamins and minerals, and it’s very, very useful for many reasons. The U.S. embassy on their website used to recommend that travelers who landed in La Paz drink coca tea. It was a no-brainer because it helped so much with altitude sickness. (La Paz is 12.5 thousand feet high.) You can chew the coca leaf and feel relatively normal. It doesn’t get you high. I think it’s impossible to abuse. I’ve tried to eat wads of coca - you can’t abuse it. It’s only when it’s refined into cocaine that it becomes more problematic.

From their perspective, why should they pay the price for gringos who abuse this product and use it in a way that it was never intended? It was a gift from the gods. It’s a part of everyday life. And it’s in traditions and ceremonies, all kinds of rituals - coca leaves are touched to the lips of newborn babies, symbolically. So, when the U.S. was so vehement about wiping out coca, a lot of indigenous people [the majority in Bolivia] thought, “Maybe the real object is wiping us out.” That might sound a little far-fetched, but think back to the Plains Indians here in the U.S. What was the strategy? Kill the buffalo. You kill the buffalo, you kill the culture. So, Bolivia has fought for and gotten the right to grow and sell coca for traditional use within their country. It is a remarkable achievement. They stood up to the UN conventions, the UN system. They’re the first country to really be able to do that. And the U.S. put a lot of pressure to get other countries to gang up on Bolivia and failed. It was a brave and courageous step.

In Jamaica, the parliament is talking about decriminalizing possession of ganja. People in the U.S. have this image of Jamaica [as lenient on drugs]. In fact, they have some pretty harsh laws. If you ever go there as a tourist, you will see the signs everywhere. They mean business. But now they’re starting to talk about it. A lot of the Caribbean islands can be quite culturally conservative in these respects. Even they are now talking about it. And they’ve pointed to Colorado and Washington state as examples. If they can do it in the United States, why can’t we at least start talking about decriminalization? Because we’re locking lots of people up for no good reason and it’s not producing any good effect. Belize is also talking about this. 

In country after country we’re reaching that tipping point now, whereas just five years ago no country would dare say any of this stuff in public. Privately you would get a lot of this discourse.

That’s the same domestically. A lot of politicians will say one thing in public and vote for drug war policies, but in private? I’ve visited hundreds of Congressional offices in the past decade, Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal, and I’ll tell you, there’s two different types of discourse going on. There is the one behind closed doors and there is the one in public. When the doors are closed and they think no one else is listening, suddenly the questions come. What do you think about taxation and regulation and legalization? What would that look like? This was a Republican Senator asking me this. There’s a lot of curiosity, and a lot of ignorance, frankly. They have no models to point to, so they want to know. 

The trick is, the real test, how do you get them to say in public what they say in private? 


What’s coming up? Some things to look for: In 2016 there’s going to be another UNGASS, United Nations General Assembly Special Session, on drugs, the first one they’ve had since 1998. The UN system operates out of Vienna, where the Commission on Narcotic Drugs is. That’s kind of the UN’s international body for drug policy. They pride themselves on what’s called “the Vienna consensus” - that all countries consent to the global war on drugs. It’s a coerced consensus: any country that dares raise their hand and break that consensus is going to feel the full weight of U.S. diplomatic reprisals and ostracism. 

In 2016, however, a lot of countries are coming to basically rebel against the orthodoxy that’s been imposed by the U.S., Russia and China and the other big powers. The consensus is crumbling fast. If you had an anonymous straw poll, that consensus would have died years ago, but now they’re willing to say it publicly. So, that will be something interesting to watch.

Don’t shoot me for bringing up the 2016 U.S. elections. This is fascinating, because what Colorado and Washington have done is trigger a series of events that is going to have profound ramifications politically down the line. Attorney General Holder came out at the end of August with a policy that the feds would not intervene in Washington and Colorado if they abide by eight conditions - among them don’t sell to minors, don’t get involved in drug cartels – and the federal government would take a hands-off policy. 

This is huge. It’s a guideline to the U.S. Attorneys around the country, who enjoy a tremendous amount of latitude and discretion in how they apply the laws. They’re legally allowed to enforce any law that’s on the books; they don’t have to abide by these [Washington] policies. Still, that Holder is willing to say this and push them in this direction is important. It’s true that the next administration could overturn this policy, because it’s a political move, not a legislative one. The laws of Congress have not changed: cannabis is still illegal. But what Holder has done is remarkable.

What he effectively did was deposit a flaming bag of pooh on the front porch of the GOP, because this is going to come back and haunt them. The onus is now on the people who want to re-impose prohibition of cannabis. They’re going to have to make an argument as to why they need to do that. Watch this issue in the primaries, because we have so many states now that have medical marijuana and these two states with legal marijuana. Anyone who runs in a primary is going to have to answer this question on federal versus states’ rights on these issues.

My advice to the GOP is: work with Democrats in Congress. Democrats also need to grow some backbone on this issue. It’s time for Congress to stand up and be counted. Deal with this issue sooner rather than later so that it’s not lingering around during the primary process, where it’s just going to come back and whack you to the left and to the right. 

This is the interesting confluence both hemispherically and domestically. We really are at a tipping point. We’re still a long ways away from dealing with the harder drugs, but on the soft drugs - and this is the real bread and butter of law enforcement, with half the drug arrests in the U.S. being for marijuana possession - it’s important to deal with this issue. It’s the right thing to do. Ultimately, it’s in Obama’s interest to deal with this definitively as well. 

We all know marijuana prohibition will end. It could be two years from now, it could be 10 years from now, it could be 20 years from now, but it’s going to end. So what is the purpose of prolonging it? Why would we continue to send people into prison, spend all this money, squander all these resources that could be applied to prevention, to dealing with harder drugs, to be giving access to treatment. All these other needs are not being met because of this waste of money. 

The question I would put to my representatives, and perhaps you want to do the same with yours, is to say: "Look, some day we’re going to have terms that we can live with. It’s like the end of any war: there’s a treaty that’s going to be drawn up with terms of surrender, of peace. These are terms that would be acceptable to both sides. And if they’re acceptable then, why can’t they be acceptable now? Why couldn’t they have been acceptable five years ago? Why must we continue to fight and have all this bloodshed and at the end of the day end up with those same terms?" 

Watch another one of Sanho Tree's talks, called Addicted to Failure:

The audio for this talk is available at

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Sanho Tree.jpg

Sanho Tree is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and director of its Drug Policy Project, which works to end the domestic and international “War on Drugs” and replace it with policies that promote public health and safety. The project focuses on both the dysfunction of domestic politics and the collateral damage caused by the U.S. exporting its failed drug war to Colombia, Bolivia, Mexico, Afghanistan and other countries. The project develops new mechanisms to establish humane and sustainable alternatives to the drug war, such as tax and regulate models of cannabis control. Sanho has been featured in over a dozen documentary films and has appeared in hundreds of print and broadcast interviews. Follow Sanho on Twitter.