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May 2, 2006 - Globe and Mail (Canada)

Legalizing Drugs: The Grand, Scary Scope

By Gary Mason

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Vancouver -- There was a time when Gustavo de Greiff was seen as one of America's greatest allies in its war on drugs.

Now they won't let him into the country.

In 1993, Mr. de Greiff was Colombia's prosecutor-general, responsible for cracking down on the country's infamous drug cartels. During his tenure, the conviction rate for traffickers in Colombia jumped to 75 per cent from 20 per cent.

The notorious Medellin cartel was effectively gutted. And Pablo Escobar, the richest cocaine trafficker in the world and No. 1 on the FBI's "most wanted" list, was hunted down and killed.

All this made Mr. de Greiff a hero in the United States, and the subject of glowing profiles in major newspapers and television news shows, including 60 Minutes.

He could have had it all, as they say, but his conscience got the better of him.

Not long into what would be a two-year term as Colombia's top anti-drug czar, Mr. de Greiff came to a stunning realization: The war on drugs wasn't working, anywhere. And it was time, he thought, that the world woke up to this fact and accepted there was only one way to put the planet's narco-traffickers out of business.

Make drugs legal.

"We killed Pablo Escobar, we smashed the Medellin cartel and many others, we took away property and took down laboratories and confiscated drug shipments and yet nothing happened in the big picture," Mr. de Greiff said in an interview in Vancouver, where he is speaking at an international conference on illicit drugs.

"The price and quantity of drugs in New York and Miami and Los Angeles didn't change a bit. It was then I realized the futility of it all. That is why I started thinking there had to be another alternative, and that was legalization."

Which he does not see as an invitation to consume more drugs or create a thriving free market for them. Instead, Mr. de Greiff envisions the legal regulation, production and trade of drugs (thereby eliminating the trafficker), combined with education campaigns on the hazards of drugs and on effective treatment programs.

Which is precisely what he told a conference on drug policy in Baltimore, Md., in late 1993.

"I could have stayed quiet and said nothing but I couldn't," he recalled. "My conscience wouldn't allow it."

The authorities in Washington were not amused. He was scolded by then-attorney general Janet Reno in a private meeting in her office. The United States ended up revoking his visa to enter the country, allegedly on the grounds he associated with drug dealers. These were rumours circulated by enemies of Mr. de Greiff that were never proved to be true.

Now 76, he is in Vancouver to be a keynote speaker at the International Harm Reduction conference, aimed at examining how regulating illegal drugs, in much the same way alcohol and tobacco are regulated, is a healthier approach to dealing with society's drug problems than prohibition.

He lives in Mexico City, where he has been further studying the drug issue at a national think-tank. His research, he said, has made him more convinced than ever that legalization is the way to go.

However, he understands why it's such a tough sell to parents. "I sympathize with parents' fears," he said. "They think that making drugs legal and more available, perhaps, will lead to an explosion in consumption. But there will not be."

Mr. de Greiff said research has shown that the legalization of marijuana in the Netherlands, for instance, did not lead to a radical increase in use of drugs. He also cites work done by a neurologist at Duke University in North Carolina that suggests addiction is a genetic problem and that most people have an inherent tendency to avoid danger. That, Mr. de Greiff said, would apply to drugs too.

While Mr. de Greiff and a growing army of health officials who share his view make a compelling case, there are two problems.

First, is the grand, and I would say scary, scope of the make-all-drugs-legal plan. I think society might one day go for a graduated approach to legalization. Let's see how it goes with marijuana first before we say yes to heroin and cocaine. But not all at once.

The bigger obstacle, however, remains Mr. de Greiff's old friend, the United States. The Canadian government, least of all a Conservative Canadian government trying to repair relations with a Republican U.S. one, is never going to go for the legalization of drugs, least of all heroin and cocaine.

Just not going to happen.

"I agree with you," Mr. de Greiff said. "That is the No. 1 obstacle in my view, too. The U.S. has so much power to influence countries. But I think the problem will eventually get so bad there will be a moment of rationality when the U.S. government will have to take another look at the problem and the solutions.

"But for now, when people ask me what are the chances of this ever happening, I say, 'I'm cautiously pessimistic.'"

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