This was an exciting week for me. In anticipation of the City of Ideas Festival (La Ciudad de Ideas) in Puebla I spoke with Andrés Roemer, the festival’s co-curator. I was particularly interested in a scheduled debate titled, “What’s the Point of Prohibition?” — referring to the legalization of currently illegal drugs.
I asked, “What are we going to do if the Supreme Court gets ahead of us?”
Andrés replied, “This debate is about much more than marijuana.”
Was Roemer talking about the spectrum of drugs that was possibly to be legalized or was he talking about how, as a society, we reach consensus about social policy? I looked forward to finding out.
Within two hours a New York Times headline popped up on my screen saying Mexico’s Supreme Court had struck down laws limiting a particular group’s right to grow and use marijuana recreationally. An interesting thing about this decision is it is limited to the four people who brought the suit.
As Roemer predicted, Saturday’s debate proved especially timely, touching on both harmful legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco and illegal drugs. He moderated a two-hour formal debate with four proponents on each side of the issue.
Three former heads of state argued for the legalization of drugs. They were Ruth Dreifuss of Switzerland, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Mexico’s own Vicente Fox. Ricardo Salinas Pliego, a Mexican entrepreneur and co-curator of the festival, joined them.
Colombia and Mexico both have been seriously impacted for decades by the War on Drugs initiated by the Unites States. Both countries have suffered an increase in violence and drug cartel activity and an increasing lack of respect by the citizenry for their government’s anti-drug policy.
Two of the defenders of prohibition of illegal drugs were from the United States: Kevin Sabet a founder of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) and Mark Kleiman, CEO of Back of the Envelope Calculations Analysis Corporation. They were joined by Mexican Viridiana Rios, a fellow at the Wilson Center for International Scholars, and by Antonio Mazzitelli, an Italian who is the liaison with Mexico from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
Before the debate, Roemer asked the 5,000 people in the audience to raise their hand if they defended prohibition. A good number raised their hand. He then asked for a show of hands of those opposed to prohibition. They were both numerous and boisterous. By my calculation the mostly, Mexican audience was 2:1 in favor of doing away with prohibition.
During the debate the only reference to the recent Supreme Court decision came from ex-President Fox who said that with five more similar court decisions, legalization of marijuana will become law. The Senate and Chamber of Deputies need to work quickly to write law. “I hope they are up to the challenge,” he added.
Using Fox’s introductory comments, Roemer asked the ex-president how he could compare the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden to the forbidden drugs and allow their use while regulating them.
Fox pointed to the role of parents. “Through example and information. Parents must be careful o give their children information necessary for their health. Forbidden fruit was attractive to Adam and Eve but it could have been described as infested with worms, bad for their stomachs. When things are explained and reasons are offered we all understand. This is particularly effective if the parents themselves are not examples of using.”
To Ricardo Salinas Pliego (TV Azteca’s CEO), Roemer relayed a question from the audience. “TV Azteca’s often repeated slogan is ‘Say no to drugs.’ Isn’t that in conflict with your suggestion that addicts be provided with free drugs?”
“Much like we give out free medicine to sick people” was Salinas’ reply.
Roemer’s sharpest question — and the one which drew the most cheers from the audience — was addressed to ex-President of Colombia Gaviria. “No one is more vehement in defending that which you defend. Why didn’t you do it when you were President?”
“I had no option. Drug cartels were so strong they threatened the state itself.”
Addressing Mark Kleiman, who was Roemer’s professor in the University of California’s School of Public Policy, Roemer said, “Everything, including drugs, has a market. Why not bring in transparent competition. Currently the drug market is a monopoly. In a free market there’s competition; profits are reduced. Black markets currently damage the health, life, and dignity of huge sectors of Latin America and the world.”
“I think you need to take my class again,” said professor Kleiman.
“But you gave me an A.”
“Some vices in society are so harmful that government must regulate them; gambling, alcohol, illegal drugs,” said Kleiman.
It was an intense, thought-provoking discussion on the liberalization/prohibition of drugs in society. After the debate concluded, Roemer asked for a show of hands. “How many people changed their minds from where they had been at the beginning?”
Despite all the discussion, very few hands went up. Nevertheless it was an achievement to be speaking openly and civilly about the elephant in the room.