A Healthy Drug Policy in Guatemala and Beyond: An Interview with Amanda Feilding of the Beckley Foundation

The Beckley Foundation has begun conducting research in Guatemala into the effects that current drug policies are having on the country, after being invited by President Otto Perez Molina.  As part of the study, they are thinking up new approaches to dealing with the black market drug trade; the production, users, cartels and crimes surrounding it. I interviewed Amanda Feilding, head of the Beckley Foundation, about the move. She told me possible ways the black market trade could be legalised, regulated and used to not only supply Guatemala and other countries with an income, but how resources, which are currently used in fighting the war on drugs, could be more constructively applied to healthcare and education, rather than combat and incarceration.

Otto Perez Molina, President of Guatemala, is coming to the end of his first year in power. During this year he has become the first head of state to say, while being in power, that the war on drugs has failed. The pinnacle of this was in July when he signed a public letter written by the Beckley Foundation. It asks for the parliaments, councils and governments of the world to reconsider their strategy for dealing with illegal drugs. Molina invited the Beckley Foundation to Guatemala to provide him with ‘evidence based scientific data’ that he could use when addressing other heads of states in the region and elsewhere to re-think drug policy. According to Amanda Feilding:

“Before Perez was president he was in charge of security.  It became very clear to him that you really cannot beat the cartels because of the vast profits from illegal drugs. They can always have more guns and better equipment. It is a wasted battle. The Mexican approach has illustrated this – when President Felipe Calderón came to power and threw all the military force he could at the cartels and the consequence has been 50,000 dead, many of them innocent people. The cartels just get more vicious. It has been a total disaster.”

Guatemala, which has recently been hit an earthquake, is a transit country and produces very little in the way of Cocaine and Heroin. There are a few poppy fields along the Mexican border. It is positioned however, just north, next to Colombia and next down, south, from Mexico: both are two of the largest producing countries of this trade.  Guatemala is used as transportation ground for trade from southern producing countries that send drugs north, to the largest consumer country of illegal drugs in the world, America. This is why Guatemala is referred to as a transit country. There are cartel members monitoring transit routes throughout the country, who are very well armed. They are well equipped because many buyers in the US pay in arms, as they are readily available.

The Beckley Foundation now has a researcher in Guatemala who is “gathering data and making reports on the situation in the country under the current regime.” Which, Amanda tells me, has never been done before. Also, Molina has asked the foundation to: “Develop potential policy options, which include regulation with the express aim of reducing violence, crime and corruption, and to be able to divert money, which is currently being used to fight the cartels, into development, education and health.”

One of the ways this could be done is by legalising the trade, which would put it under government control in the form of regulation.  The reasoning behind this, Amanda explained, is that if the trade was legalised then this would “put the Cartels either out of business or business would need to be conducted differently. I think this has to be grasped.  Take Afghanistan, this shows that if you actually want to regulate an illegal market you have to involve the local leaders. Everyone agrees this goes against the grain but maybe one has to find some compromise.”

The current prohibitionist approach that is universally deployed derives from the United Nations Conventions: 1961, 1971 and 1981. Amanda argues this approach is flawed because the key players of the trade are rarely caught and incarcerating the “little fish of the market who trade and use small amounts” ruins lives. It is difficult to get a job with a criminal record and even harder for someone if they have spent time in jail. People being alienated and pushed to the fringes of society are not being helped and are more likely to commit further crimes. Families are also split up when a member goes to jail.  There are more prisons being set up, especially in the private sector in the US and this brings the intention of the prison system, especially the private prison industry, into question.

“In my view this is a war against the users.  One has to remember that 90 percent of the users cause no harm to themselves or other people and therefore it should be no business of the state. The ten percent are usually addicted to heroin and methamphetamine and that causes a large proportion of the crime. The idea that you are criminalising 170 million people around the world who smoke cannabis is a bad rule. You do not want rules that cannot be enforced and lower the respect of the people for the law. There are a lot of police people that say the enforcement is doing more harm than good and I think that realisation is finally coming up.”

Throughout the interview with Amanda, she emphasised time and time again that any change to drug policy, in her opinion and the position of the Beckley Foundation, must be orientated around health. She argues that by decriminalising the use of drugs, what is then actually bought and sold on the market, could be better quality, with more information present about what the chemical composition is and also details of where it was produced. Amanda mentioned cannabis specifically, with a lot of what is currently available on the black-market being buds that have a high THC and low CBD ratio.  The THC is psychoactive and the CBD is an anti-psychotic, together they can work in balance. What Amanda suggested is that if cannabis sales were open and legal then there could be a variety of ratios and buyers could choose depending on what works for them, rather than remaining  in the dark.

“I would suggest that we have a mixture of government licensed growers, then it could be grown like the GW Pharmaceuticals who grow organically for the US. Alongside that I would have grow clubs, which are also government licensed growers. The Spanish ones are run on none profit lines and some people are elected to be growers.  The nice thing about that model is that it is not for profit and not like the tobacco market. In my opinion the primary aim is health and that is the aim of the policy.”

If the black market drug trade was brought out from dealing in the underworld then Amanda holds that money raised can be used domestically. As many for the producing countries in South America and the Middle East have low GDP. Heroin, cocaine and cannabis, for example, could be used as exports for the regulated market.  This could mean that residence of producer countries could farm these crops and it would not only be capitalised by the cartels but also trade could be open to smaller growers who have a couple of plants in their back yard.  Amanda reports that there are a growing number of poppy fields appearing in the north of Guatemala and suggests that these farms could be licensed and the poppy could be used as medicine for the local area.

“Did you know that 80% of the world’s painkillers are used by 6 percent of the world’s population? The rich countries have the painkillers and the poorer countries have no access.  Although many of the countries without access to painkillers are producing countries. What is produced goes on the illegal market to the richer, consuming, countries. What we would propose is regulating the market and providing the poppy for the medical trade and this would provide the country and the government with an income. The problem is how do you police it? We cannot really have a worse situation than we currently have.”

The research conducted by the Beckley foundation is the first of its kind to take place in Guatemala. The president will be using the initial findings from the Beckley Foundation’s research to inform and strengthen his presentation at the World Economic Forum in Davos in early 2013.

“We have been through 50 years of policy being made from mistaken ideology. At the moment the judging of success is how many illegal drugs have we captured, how many people are in jail. Well, those are not really the indicators of success.  People are caught in a misconception about drugs and think the only way to deal with them is to make prohibition stronger and stronger. Mexico shows it doesn’t work.  You cannot eliminate a supply of substances if there is a demand for them. People have always changed their consciousness and have always demanded to.”

Via the House

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