Proposition 19: a chance to end the 'war on drugs'

It is now evident that the "war on drugs" is not a metaphor: in the Andean Ridge and Mexico, as well as in West Africa and Central Asia, it has become a militarised crusade against narcotics. Several thousand soldiers are directly involved in anti-drugs operations worldwide. Hundreds of billions have been spent everywhere in an armed combat against drug consumers, drug traffickers, drug producers, drug launders and drug lords.

As part of an irregular battle against an illicit business, as a twin threat – together with terrorism – to be defeated by a form of low-intensity conflict, or as a component of a punitive war, US and non-US troops are the leading an armed fight against narcotics from Colombia and Guinea Bissau to Afghanistan. The actual results – in terms of crop eradication and substitution, drug interdiction, narcotics trafficking reduction, organised crime dismantling, curtailment of money laundering, improved statehood, better civil-military relations and human rights advancement – have been abysmally poor.

Even though Washington now spends $1,400 every second in the "war on drugs", the crusade has been a complete fiasco. The US-funded Plan Colombia (started by 2000), the Andean Regional Initiative (since 2002), the Merida Initiative (originated in 2007) for Mexico and Central America and Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (launched in 2009), have totalled more than $9bn and have had negligible results in terms of lowering the drug consumption, reducing the availability of psychoactive substances and diminishing the purity of narcotics in the United States.

What this tells us is that the problem with drugs is no more "alien" than the solution is "military". Drugs are a US demand issue – driven by domestic markets that have their own social and political implications, as well as by transnational economic forces and their global ramifications. So, no unconventional war will resolve the matter. If the idea were to follow the advice of military theorist Carl von Clausewitz – to discern the "enemy's centre of gravity", the pivotal place "on which everything depends" and "the point against which all our energies should be directed" – then the "war on drugs" should become a war on US citizenry.

One way to begin the domestic dismantling of the "war on drugs" rationale and to signal to the world that the United States is willing to initiate a realistic, frank and effective debate on narcotics is to support Proposition 19, on which Californians will vote on 2 November. If passed in this ballot, the proposition would mean a new regulatory regime of different marijuana-related activities, one no longer based on prohibition and interdiction. This would represent a real advance in dealing seriously and effectively with the narcotics issue – and a bold new step towards broadening the global debate on the effectiveness, or otherwise, of drug prohibition.

Proposition 19 provides a window of opportunity for Americans to think again about the wisdom of prolonging a costly and futile war.

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, associate professor of international relations at the Universidad Di Tella, Buenos Aires.