SPIEGEL ONLINE

SPIEGEL ONLINE

02/22/2013 05:14 PM

Our Right to Poison

Lessons from the Failed War on Drugs

By Jochen-Martin Gutsch and Juan Moreno

The global war on drugs has cost billions and taken countless lives -- but achieved little. The scant results finally have politicians and experts joining calls for legalization. Following the journey of cocaine from a farm in Colombia to a user in Berlin sheds light on why.

"Pablo Escobar said to me: 'One shot to the head isn't enough. It has to be two shots, just above the eyes.'"

Jhon Velásquez, nicknamed "Popeye," is sitting on a white plastic chair in the prison yard. "You can survive one shot, but never two. I cut up the bodies and threw them in the river. Or I just left them there. I often drove through Medellín, where I kidnapped and raped women. Then I shot them and threw them in the trash."

Three guards are standing next to him. He is the only prisoner in the giant building. The watchtower, the security door systems, the surveillance cameras -- it's all for him. The warden of the Cómbita maximum-security prison, a three-hour drive northeast of the Colombian capital Bogotá, has given Popeye one hour to tell his story.

The experience is like opening a door into hell.

Popeye was the right-hand man of Pablo Escobar, head of Colombia's Medellín cartel. Until his death in 1993, Escobar was the most powerful drug lord in the world. He industrialized cocaine production, controlled 80 percent of the global cocaine trade and became one of the richest people on the planet. The cartel ordered the killings of 30 judges, about 450 police officers and many more civilians. As Escobar's head of security, Popeye was an expert at kidnapping, torture and murder.

Velásquez acquired the nickname Popeye while working as a cabin boy in the Colombian navy. He kidnapped Andrés Pastrana, the then-candidate for mayor of Bogotá and later president. He obtained the weapon that was used to fatally shoot Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán in 1989. He was involved in a bombing attack that was intended to kill former Colombian President César Gaviria. Popeye, acting on the orders of Escobar, El Patrón, even had his beauty-queen girlfriend Wendy murdered.

"I've killed about 250 people, and I cut many of them into pieces. But I don't know exactly how many," Popeye says. "Only psychopaths count their kills."

Popeye is a pale, 50-year-old man with a shrill voice -- a psychopath who doesn't count his kills.

The longer Popeye talks -- about his murders, the drug war and the havoc he and Escobar wreaked and that is currently being repeated in Mexico -- the less important my prepared questions about this war become. I realize that I might as well throw away my notepad, because it all boils down to one question: How can we stop people like you, Popeye?

He pauses for a moment before saying: "People like me can't be stopped. It's a war. They lose men, and we lose men. They lose their scruples, and we never had any. In the end, you'll even blow up an aircraft because you believe the Colombian president is on board. I don't know what you have to do. Maybe sell cocaine in pharmacies. I've been in prison for 20 years, but you will never win this war when there is so much money to me made. Never."

I'm sitting face to face with a killer: Popeye, an evil product of hell. And I'm afraid that the killer could be right.

The drug war is the longest war in recent history, underway for more than 40 years. It is a never-ending struggle against a $500 billion (€378 billion) industry.

A Global War on Drugs

On July 17, 1971, then-US President Richard Nixon announced: "America's public enemy No. 1 is drug abuse." A new archenemy had been born: drugs. It was the opening salvo in the "war on drugs."

To this day, the war on drugs is being waged against anyone who comes into contact with cocaine, marijuana or other illegal drugs. It is being fought against coca farmers in Colombia, poppy growers in Afghanistan and drug mules who smuggle drugs by the kilogram (2.2 pounds), sometimes concealed in their stomachs. It is being fought against crystal meth labs in Eastern Europe, kids addicted to crack cocaine in Los Angeles and people who are caught with a gram of marijuana in their pockets, just as it is being fought against the drug cartels in Mexico and killers like Popeye. There is almost no place on earth today where the war is not being waged. Indeed, the war on drugs is as global as McDonald's.

In 2010, about 200 million people took illegal drugs. The numbers have remained relatively constant for years, as has the estimated annual volume of drugs produced worldwide: 40,000 tons of marijuana, 800 tons of cocaine and 500 tons of heroin. What has increased, however, is the cost of this endless war.

In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration pumped about $100 million into drug control. Today, under President Barack Obama, that figure is $15 billion -- more than 30 times as much when adjusted for inflation. There is even a rough estimate of the direct and indirect costs of the 40-plus years of the drug war: $1 trillion in the United States alone.

In Mexico, some 60,000 people have died in the drug war in the last six years. US prisons are full of marijuana smokers, the Taliban in Afghanistan still use drug money to pay for their weapons, and experts say China is the drug country of the future.

Is Legalization the Answer?

One of the best ways to understand why, after more than 40 years, this is still an unwinnable war is to track one of the invincible enemies.

Take cocaine, for example. The story begins with a coca farmer in the Colombian jungle, then leads to smugglers on the Caribbean island of Aruba, past soldiers and drug cops, across the Atlantic to Europe in a ship's hold, then to Berlin, where the drugs end up in the brains of those whose demand is constantly refueling the business: we, the consumers.

It's also helpful to examine an idea that could change the world, an idea being contemplated by presidents, turned over in the minds of influential politicians and studied in a New York office. The idea is the regulated legalization of drugs.

After decades of the war on drugs, the desire for an alternative is greater than ever. The eternal front in the war is crumbling.

When about 30 national leaders met in Cartagena, Colombia, in April 2012 for the Summit of the Americas, there was only big, behind-the-scenes topic: a new drug policy. Suddenly Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was saying: "If the world decides to legalize (drugs) and thinks that that is how we reduce violence and crime, I could go along with that."

General Otto Pérez Molina, president of Guatemala, wrote: "Consumption and production should be legalized but within certain limits and conditions."

Uruguayan President José Mujica said: "What scares me is drug trafficking, not drugs".

Vicente Fox, the president of Mexico from 2000 to 2006, wanted to wage the "mother of all wars" against organized crime, sending the Mexican army into the drug war. Today, Fox says that the war was a "total failure."

The possession of small amounts of marijuana is no longer a crime in Portugal. After studying drug policy in Great Britain, an independent commission concluded that a policy of stiff penalties is just as costly as it is ineffective. Although the report does not advocate the legalization of drugs, it does call for a rethinking of drug policy. Too rarely "do lawmakers admit (that) not all drug use creates problems," the report's authors write. They argue that the possession of smaller amounts should no longer be a punishable offense and that cannabis cultivation by ordinary consumers should be decriminalized and perhaps even legalized.

Drug Anxiety in Germany

A new way of thinking is beginning to take root: If a war can't be won, and if the enemy has remained invincible for 40 years, why not take the peaceful approach?

German officials take a decidedly cool stance toward these developments. No top politician with a major German party is about to call for a new drug policy or even the legalization of marijuana. Drugs are not a winning issue, because it's too easy to get burned.

Martin Lindner, the deputy head of the pro-business Free Democrats in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, recently triggered a scandal when he lit up a joint on a talk show. The headline of a recent cover story in the Berliner Kurier daily newspaper read: "Has Martin Lindner gone off the deep end?"

"The subject is still completely taboo. When someone tries to relax the rules, he is immediately accused of not protecting our children," says Gerhart Baum, the German interior minister from 1978 to 1982. During his tenure, Baum experienced the so-called "heroin years," when the number of addicts in Germany exploded, images of young junkies were on cover pages and the film "Christiane F - Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo" ("We Children from Zoo Station") was playing in theaters.

This period shaped German drug policy, and it also affected how Germans feel about drugs: anxious, for the most part.

For many people, legalization sounds like an invitation to more drug use and addiction as well as a capitulating country that no longer performs its protective function.

From Leaf to Powder

Rarely is regulated legalization seen as what experts and even presidents imagine it could be, namely, as a more effective tool in the fight against drugs. For them, it could be a tool that doesn't just address consumers, but also destroys the supply chain that makes the cultivating, processing, smuggling and selling of drugs into a business worth billions. The goal is to disrupt a system: the economy of drugs.

The rainforest of Putumayo, in southwestern Colombia, is to cocaine what New Orleans is to jazz or Maranello, the home of Ferrari, is to fast cars -- a legendary place. Coca has been grown in Putumayo since 1974. It's the first region of Colombia that began cultivation and, as local residents say, the last that will abandon it.

Carlos Sánchez, a thin man with an unruly moustache, is standing in front of his coca bush, an inconspicuous, shoulder-high plant with a reddish bark and green leaves. "My coca," says Sánchez with a farmer's pride. There are hundreds more bushes in a clearing in front of him, a plantation covering about one hectare (2.5 acres).

Coca can be harvested up to six times a year. A coca leaf contains 0.5 percent cocaine. Any idiot can grow the shrub, says Sánchez, as he walks over to his horse and unbuckles two canisters of gasoline. He needs them in the laboratory. Someone from the city is coming tomorrow to buy a kilogram of coca paste. The word "laboratory" is a stretch for what Sánchez has cobbled together: a wooden shed that reeks of gasoline, where 200 kilos of coca leaves are ready for processing.

Two steps are needed to turn them into cocaine. First, coca paste is made from the leaves, and then the paste is transformed into pure cocaine.

Sánchez takes a trimmer and moves it through the coca leaves. Then he sprinkles a mixture of cement and fertilizer onto the leaves, shovels them into large vats and pours gasoline into the containers to dissolve the cocaine out. After a while, Sánchez removes the leaves and presses out a brown pulp, which is then treated with sodium bicarbonate and dried. Coca paste has a cocaine content of about 35 percent.

The second step takes place in a different, heavily guarded lab that Sánchez will never enter, but it's only slightly more complicated. The process requires hydrochloric acid, alcohol, ammonia, acetone and simple equipment. None of it is expensive or hard to obtain. Probably the most sophisticated piece of equipment is the microwave oven in which the chemical pulp is dried. The end product is cocaine hydrochloride, or pure cocaine. A good laboratory with a well-trained team can produce 500 kilograms (1,100 lbs.) a day.

Everyone in Putumayo knows that money isn't the only form of payment in the drug business. "I lost two brothers," says Sánchez. "One was shot to death by the local guerillas, and the other one by a drug dealer." Despite the risks, money remains the main incentive. "I receive 1.5 million pesos per kilo," says Sánchez.

A Pointless War?

That's about €630 ($830), a good income but only the beginning of an unparalleled price trajectory. Pure cocaine costs €1,300 a kilo in Putumayo, more than €4,000 at the Colombian border and, in nearby Jamaica, the price already approaches €6,000. The drug gets really expensive when it reaches Europe or the United States, where dealers make about €30,000 a kilo, depending on market conditions.

The European drug user, who only receives cocaine in diluted ("cut") form, doesn't pay a fixed price. Coke is cheaper in Spain than in Germany, for example, and it's cheaper in Berlin than in Munich. The going rate in Germany is about €100 for a gram of impure cocaine, while a kilo of pure cocaine can cost up to €400,000.

"No product on earth has profit margins as large as cocaine or heroin. Why? Because of prohibition."

These are the words of Ethan Nadelmann, the 55-year-old son of a New York rabbi. He studied at Harvard, has taught at Princeton and is considered one of the top drug experts in the United States. Nadelmann is currently the head of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that is fighting for a new drug policy. Its principal sponsor is George Soros, the business magnate and investor whose net worth of some $20 billion makes him one of the richest men in the world.

Nadelmann's office, on the 15th floor of a building in Manhattan, is filled with books with titles like "Alcohol in America" and "Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography." For the last 25 years, Nadelmann has been giving lectures, writing books and appearing as an expert on programs of major channels, such as NBC, Fox and CNN. "The business with drugs is capitalism," says Nadelmann. "As long as there is a demand, there's a supply. We can, of course, eliminate the demand. All we have to do is convince the 200 million drug users to stop buying dope. But does that sound at all realistic?"

The United Nations used to think it was realistic. Until 2008, the organization's goal was to "eradicate or substantially reduce" drug cultivation and the drug trade." The slogan of the UN drug campaign read: "A drug free world: We can do it!" Today, in 2013, the world is still about as drug-free as a so-called Fixerstube (fixer room) in Frankfurt's train station district.

For 25 years, Nadelmann has been convinced that the drug war is pointless. For 25 years, he has been calling for the controlled legalization of drug. And, for 25 years, his efforts have been completely unsuccessful. But now it seems as if things were finally about to change. "Boom!" says Nadelmann.

On the Front Lines of the War

Carlos Sánchez, the coca farmer from Putumayo, spent the entire night making his coca paste. The man who comes to pick it up will take it to Ecuador, to a guarded laboratory in the jungle where the paste will be refined into pure cocaine.

If everything goes smoothly, the cocaine will begin its journey after leaving the laboratory. There is probably no road -- or harbor, river or runway, for that matter -- in the northern part of South America that hasn't been used to smuggle drugs in the last 40 years.

The classic route to the United States passes through Mexico. Reaching Europe is a bit more complicated. A route through West Africa has become established in recent years, but much of the traffic still follows the traditional route, passing through the Caribbean or by plane from Brazil, Colombia and Argentina. Large shipments are sent by sea. Spain and the Netherlands are often the destination countries, although eight tons of cocaine, worth half a billion euros, were recently discovered in a container full of bananas in Antwerp, Belgium.

If things don't go smoothly, the drugs end up in the possession of a short, stocky man who, in his green coveralls, looks like a gardener.

General Luis Alberto Pérez, 53, is the head of the Colombian anti-narcotics police. He is in a very good mood because his men have just seized 1.8 tons of cocaine in a village on the Atlantic coast. After flying from Bogotá to northern Colombia in the morning, Pérez is now standing on a stage in the courtyard of police headquarters in Riohacha.

"That was a heavy blow against this plague that has infected our country," Pérez says into the microphone before a group of journalists.

Pérez's men tear open a few of the cocaine packets. "Top quality," says a police officer, smiling as he discovers the symbol on the compressed powder.

Each cocaine laboratory has a symbol, or label, to identify its product. This is important in case something isn't right with the product. "They apparently like German cars," says General Pérez. The Audi logo is displayed on each of the 1,500 packets of cocaine.

Pérez took more than 72 tons of cocaine out of circulation in 2012, or about 9 percent of global production. He also busted 1,200 cocaine laboratories, seized 400 boats and 150 small aircraft, destroyed 22 runways and arrested 76,000 people.

Of course, Pérez and his men aren't cheap. Colombia spends about 15 percent of its national budget on security, which includes the police and military. General Pérez has tanks and Black Hawk helicopters at his disposal. Narcotics agents in Colombia are equipped like warlords. "We are making progress," says Pérez.

Prices, Premiums and Demand

The Medellín and Cali drug cartels, which once controlled Colombia, have been destroyed with the help of American military aid. Nevertheless, the global trade has hardly changed. It has merely undergone a shift.

Dozens of smaller groups have now taken the place of the two big cartels. New fields in Peru and Bolivia have already replaced some of the 100,000 hectares of coca fields that Pérez has destroyed in Colombia. And the carnage committed by drug warlords no longer takes place in Medellín, but in Mexican cities instead, such Ciudad Juárez.

The drug trade is a straightforward business. The farther the product is removed from the coca plantation, and the closer it comes to some party in Los Angeles or Berlin, the higher the price. The final price has nothing to do with actual costs, which make up only a miniscule percentage of it.

Most of the purchase price consists of a sort of risk premium: the amount the dealer collects in return for the risk of ending up in prison. In other words, it includes an insane profit margin that can only exist because the product is banned.

Since the costs are irrelevant, the amount of cocaine that General Pérez confiscated is also practically irrelevant. From the standpoint of the dealers who have just lost almost two tons of drugs, this only means that, since the police are being vigilant, it's time to increase the price of our product.

The demand for narcotics is what is known as "inelastic." No matter how cheap heroin is, most people won't buy it, regardless of the price. But addicts will always pay. They have no choice, or else they wouldn't be addicts. To them, it doesn't matter what the drugs cost.

That's the economy of drugs.

Growing Resistance to the War

General Pérez has been a police officer for 35 years. He is likely to be named the head of Colombia's national police force soon. Does he believe that he is winning the war? "Of course, when we chop off one head another one immediately grows in its place," he says. "But I do believe we can destroy all coca fields."

No fields, no cocaine -- that's the equation. What does he need to achieve his goal? "More time, and more soldiers," says Pérez.

In other words, more war.

A few years ago, hardly anyone would have contradicted General Pérez. But, these days, the world is searching for alternatives.

"What is happening in Latin America is a revolution," says Ethan Nadelmann, the expert in New York. "Presidents are saying: 'Put an end to the drug war!' That was completely inconceivable for a long time."

For a long 25 years, Nadelmann was a revolutionary without a revolution. But now, all of sudden, he is in the thick of things. He met three presidents last year: then-Mexican President Felipe Caldéron, Colombian President Santos and Guatemalan President Pérez Molina. They were all seeking his advice to develop a new, more effective drug policy. "It's the best time I've ever had," says Nadelmann.

The resistance is building in Latin America, in the US's backyard, of all places. It is a part of the world where, for decades, the CIA brought down governments and helped install dictators in power. In principle, it is also a story of emancipation. Latin America is becoming more self-confident as its economies strengthen, and the fear of the Yankees to the north is subsiding. Nadelmann now wants to take advantage of "the momentum" and hopes to take the revolution around the world.

Prominent Drug-War Opponents Unite

On some days, it seems as if his plan could work. An astonishing press conference took place at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, in New York, in June 2011. The Global Commission on Drug Policy was introducing itself.

The members of the commission include former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, George Schulz, US secretary of state under former President Ronald Reagan, and former US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. It is the most prominent collection of drug-war opponents ever assembled.

The commission presented a 20-page report, the first sentence of which read: "The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world." Nadelmann wrote the sentence, as well as the report's entire executive summary. He advised the commission, and he also searched for high-profile members.

One of the speakers at the press conference in the Waldorf Astoria was an amiable man with glasses: César Gaviria, the president of Colombia from 1990 to 1994. While in office, he did almost everything except fight a war. Colombia was what Mexico is today: a country hijacked by drug lords.

"An irrational and pointless drug policy was partly responsible for that period," says Gaviria today.

He is standing in his office, looking out at Bogotá traffic through a bulletproof glass window. The entire office building is as heavily secured as an airport terminal. As the president who hunted down Pablo Escobar, Gaviria is used to living behind bulletproof glass.

For Gaviria, the drug war was long an incontrovertible part of policy. "We never questioned whether there was an alternative," says Gaviria. The war was simply a fact of life, as was waging it.

It was former Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso who convinced Gaviria, in long conversations, to start giving more thought to the matter. Cardoso described how the war on drugs was criminalizing politics in Latin America, and Gaviria was familiar with the power of drug money from his own experience. Drug money was used to buy police officers, judges and politicians. Escobar even bought the constitution when he used his money to bribe the government into prohibiting the extradition of Colombian citizens. And drug money was behind the attack on Gaviria that was planned by Popeye, the killer.

On Nov. 26, 1989, C4 plastic explosives brought down Avianca Flight 203, killing 110 people. Gaviria, a presidential candidate at the time, had missed the flight -- and survived as a result.

Governments are almost powerless against drug money, as Colombia was then and Mexico is today. "It's advantageous to withdraw from active politics. It gives you time to think," says Gaviria.

The Global Commission report circled the globe. It felt like a taboo had been broken. It wasn't marijuana hunters who were calling for a drug policy. Instead, it was now people like former drug warrior Gaviria and former NATO Secretary-General Solana -- people from the mainstream of world politics.

Like a Never-Ending Arms Race

A silver Toyota Corolla is traveling along Fortheuvelstraat with a man in a brown Hawaiian shirt at the wheel. He seems to be thinking about something. "There were Audi logos on the cocaine packets?" the man asks. The ocean comes into view as we approach Baby Beach, one of Aruba's famous beaches.

General Pérez suspects that the 1.8 tons of cocaine his men seized were supposed to be smuggled to Aruba, an island 20 nautical miles off the coast of Venezuela, and from there to the Netherlands. It's a classic route.

Geoffrey, the man driving the Toyota, is a New Yorker in his late 40s who speaks five languages. He prefers not to comment on the cocaine with the Audi logo. "A lot of people in this business kick the bucket because they talk too much," he says.

Geoffrey is a dealer. He buys Colombian cocaine and brings it to Europe. The white beach, the drinks, the girls -- he has no complaints about any of it. But, more than anything, Geoffrey likes the fact that Aruba has a duty-free port and daily flights to Amsterdam. Aruba is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which makes the island a perfect transit point for drugs.

Geoffrey points to Baby Beach. "I pick up a lot of loads here," he says. Large shipments arrive by speedboat and are tossed into the sea in watertight containers at prearranged locations. Geoffrey gets smaller packets from the supply ships coming from Venezuela. The cocaine is hidden in fruit crates, life vests and fish. "Everyone has his preferences," he says.

He pays €4,500 for a kilo of coke, and then sells it for about €30,000 to a contact in Amsterdam. Geoffrey's suppliers are Colombians. "Good guys, as long as you don't jerk them around. They even help out when you're in jail. They send you and your kids money." And if you jerk them around? "Then they shoot you and your kids."

Geoffrey likes to keep the business simple. He won't take the risk of dealing with anything more than 10 kilos. There is "too much money involved," he says. It's too dangerous.

But the risk is worth taking for quantities of less then 10 kilos. "It's all been done," says Geoffrey. Drugs have been hidden in the soles of shoes, bibles, as implants inside the calf, in women's breasts, in dead bodies and even in the stomachs of dogs.

The best way to imagine the drug war is as a never-ending arms race. The customs agents are given psychological training. The drug cartels have schools for their smugglers. The coast guard is given speedboats that can travel at 50 knots. The dealers buy boats that can go 60 knots. The navy patrols in the Pacific. The dealers build submarines that can cover 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) without surfacing. The drug war expands with each new battle. If there were demand for drugs on the moon, the launch of the first cocaine rocket would probably be imminent.

Geoffrey has an appointment. He parks the Toyota and says goodbye. The car is in front of the entrance to the Aruba cargo port. Among the containers stacked on the grounds are some painted bright red, together with the words "Hamburg Süd."

Imagining an Alternative to a Drug-Free World

Legalization is a difficult word, says Ethan Nadelmann in New York.

In fact, sitting in Nadelmann's office in Manhattan, it really is difficult to imagine a world without the drug war. A future in which marijuana and cocaine are legal and can be purchased in pharmacies or specialty drug shops? A life in which everyone decides for him- or herself: Am I going to take this drug? How much am I going to take? How do I protect my children?

It isn't an easy thing to imagine. In fact, the very thought of it creates a gut-wrenching feeling, and it makes you ask yourself questions like: Legalizing drugs? Are you folks nuts?

The international prohibition on drugs has existed for 100 years. It began with the opium conferences in The Hague and led to the UN's 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The ban has shaped the world into what generations are familiar with. It is an intrinsic part of our morality and culture, and there is hardly a greater taboo than to legalize drugs. Nadelmann calls this feeling "the fear of the unknown."

"Obviously, every drug is dangerous," says Nadelmann, including marijuana. But it's also the case that the world will never be drug-free, no matter what we do. It hasn't been drug-free for thousands of years. And a drug-free world would presumably be unbearable sometimes. The goal of those who favor legalization is to find the most tolerable way to live with drugs. Nadelmann believes that the best route is not prohibition, but "regulated legalization."

As Nadelmann explains it, this stance envisions the following scenario: Drugs would not be completely unrestricted. There would be maximum doses and age restrictions. Young people would not to be given access to marijuana and cocaine, but every adult would be permitted to have a small amount of each drug for personal use. Every adult would also be able buy these drugs legally from a specific source, which could be called something like the National Drug Provider. And, of course, the government would regulate both the provider and its products.

And, if this were the case, this is how he imagines the consequences: Mafia-like cartels would no longer control drugs. Their business model, a gigantic profit margin made possible by prohibition, would be destroyed, and so would their power. Instead, the government would control drugs, taxing them the same way it taxes tobacco or alcohol. Instead of the mafia or warlords in Afghanistan, the tax office would be the one collecting the profits. And, instead of criminals, licensed providers would be selling the narcotics. In the future, all the billions that were being spent on the drug war -- for soldiers, prisons and criminal prosecution -- would go into health education. This would include drug prevention and addiction treatment, as well as the targeted fight against a black market for drugs that will form despite legalization.

"How does that sound?" Nadelmann asks.

Like a huge experiment, with an outcome that no one can predict.

Nadelmann is a realist. "When we talk about legalization today," he says, "we're only talking about marijuana. Nothing else."

An Argument for Continued Prohibition

Of course, there are plenty of opponents and counterarguments to legalization.

In a huge office with a view of Vienna, Yuri Fedotov says: "Legalization is the wrong approach." Fedotov, a Russian, has hands the size of frying pans and, for almost three years now, has been the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Fedotov rattles off a few figures: Alcohol, a legal drug, kills about 2.3 million people worldwide each year. Tobacco kills 5.1 million. With illegal drugs, on the other hand, the numbers are much lower, with 200,000 people a year falling victim to heroin, cocaine or crack. For the UN, this number illustrates the success of prohibition.

Fedotov says that it's an illusion to believe that the legalization of drugs could break the power of the cartels, because drugs are only part of their business -- perhaps half. Nowadays, the cartels are also involved in weapons smuggling, prostitution and Internet crime.

Most of all, however, Fedotov believes in a simple drug logic that could be described as the intellectual rationale for continued prohibition: If drugs are legal, the thinking goes, there is no deterrent effect. If drugs are legal, access becomes easier. And something that is legal is taken more often, says Fedotov, noting that rising consumption will produce more addicts. In the end, he concludes, the drug problem will have grown instead of being contained.

In principle, the drug debate boils down to a number of key questions: What happens if drugs are legalized? Is this drug logic correct? Will consumption spin out of control in the absence of prohibition?

No one has a definitive answer to these questions. But it seems as if, these days, more and more people would be willing to hazard an experiment.

Growing Global Support for Legalization

On Nov. 6, 2012, the day of the US presidential election, Nadelmann was at an election party in San Francisco, and his phone seemed to be on fire. He was constantly taking calls from American media organizations. Everyone wanted a quote from him.

Obama had won. But much more astonishing was the fact that, on that same day, the citizens of the states of Colorado and Washington had voted in favor of bills to legalize marijuana.

In the future, every adult in Colorado and Washington will be allowed to legally possess roughly 30 grams of marijuana as well as purchase it legally at licensed outlets.

For Nadelmann, November 6 was the most important Election Day he had ever experienced. Elsewhere in the world, people were rubbing their eyes in astonishment. Legalization? In the United States? The biggest of all combatants in the drug war?

Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron has calculated that the legalization of marijuana could generate $8.7 billion in annual tax revenues in the United States. And money is an argument that can even sway conservative voters.

The second major argument is the prison population. Some 750,000 people were arrested for marijuana offences in the United States in 2011, most of them merely for possession -- of a substance potentially less addictive than alcohol.

Perhaps there will a day when Nov. 6, 2012 will be considered the beginning of the end of the marijuana prohibition. At any rate, what happened on that day has opened up the first holes in the system.

Although marijuana will be legal in Colorado, it remains illegal under US federal law. It's as if smoking a joint were permitted in the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania but illegal the minute you crossed into the neighboring state of Brandenburg. And how are the Americans going to explain to Mexicans that they are supposed to continue waging a drug war, one that claims many lives, so that Mexican marijuana doesn't cross the border into the United States, if grass is legal across that border? It's a conundrum.

A Lose-Lose Situation in Germany

The red containers marked "Hamburg Süd" at the port in Aruba will eventually be loaded onto a container ship that will carry them across the Atlantic. While the ship plows through the ocean, Harald Chybiak at the State Office of Criminal Investigation, in Berlin, will be trying to explain the cocaine market in the German capital.

Chybiak, 52, runs the narcotics division. He is Berlin's top drug hunter and the last man with the ability to stop the cocaine.

Berlin consumes 3.6 tons of cocaine a year, says Chybiak, more than any other German city. Of that, Chybiak intercepts between 100 and 150 kilos. "There is no question that by far the greatest part makes it through."

The red containers coming from Aruba are a case in point. Cocaine is loaded into the containers in Aruba. The "rip-off method" is especially popular, says Chybiak. This means that the drugs are shipped together with other, legal goods. The cocaine is hidden between banana crates or in machine parts.

More than 10,000 ships arrive at the Port of Hamburg each year. Nine million containers are processed there, including half a million from South America. Law-enforcement and customs officials examine the shipping manifests, looking for implausible information, and have suspicious containers searched. But only a fraction of the drugs are discovered and seized. Once the product has been picked up, it is distributed via dealer networks. The drugs gradually seep into the country, eventually making their way to Berlin.

"So what am I doing here? asks Chybiak. "Sometimes I pick a crumb out of the cake so that the crumb -- in other words, a dealer -- doesn't get too big. That's my job. But, of course, the cake -- or the business -- is still there."

Chybiak has never been to Colombia. He has heard about the legalization efforts in Latin America and the elections in the United States. But all of that seems very remote to him.

Martin Lindner, the FDP politician who smoked a joint on television, has advocated the legalization of pot for years. When his party meets for its annual convention in May, he will petition to have legalization included in the Free Democrats' party platform. If he succeeds, it would be a coup.

Former Interior Minister Baum, now 80, says: "I am in favor of having an open debate on the pros and cons of legalizing cannabis." But, today, Baum is one of the very few public figures in Germany to support legalization.

Another one is Hubert Wimber, the chief of police in the northwestern city of Münster. He also chairs the "Working Group of German Chiefs of Police," which makes something akin to a national chief of police. Repression isn't going to solve the drug problem, says Wimber. "You won't find a reputable study that claims the opposite is true." Wimber is calling for the legalization of cannabis. He can even imagine that cannabis "is only the first step," if we "finally want to effectively fight the giant market for illegal drugs."

But unlike Latin America and the United States, Germany lacks the political pressure to change. There were 986 drug-related deaths in Germany in 2011, the smallest number since 1988. Drug use is declining in all age groups. So why change anything?

The drug deaths we see on German television today are usually deaths in the drugs war in Mexico and Colombia. We can feel appalled for a moment, but then we change the channel.

Unfortunately, drugs are a global business. Western Europe consumes a large share of global drug production. Our demand keeps the business going. Simply put, one of the reasons people die in the drug war is that we can't leave the stuff alone.

Will we change? As consumers, we have hardly changed over the 40-year course of the drug war. But at least we could think about a new, more effective drug policy.

Sitting in Chybiak's office in Berlin, it's hard not to think about General Pérez, the drug cop back in Colombia. Chybiak and Pérez have the same job: fighting drugs. But Pérez is at war, while Chybiak is picking crumbs out of a cake.

Still, Chybiak doesn't look unhappy. What should he do? "If we increase the police pressure, we'll increase the price of drugs," he says. "That, in turn, increases the incentive to get into the business." For the police, that's a lose-lose situation.

The Hidden Costs of Pleasure

At the very end of its long journey, from the coca fields of Putumayo to the Caribbean island of Aruba, across the ocean to Hamburg and then to Berlin, the cocaine has only a few centimeters left to travel. The drug shoots through the mucous membranes of the nose into the bloodstream, is pumped into the brain and enters the limbic system, where emotions and urges are controlled. Breathing accelerates, blood pressure and body temperature rise, and euphoria sets in. It takes only two or three minutes to get high on cocaine. Cocaine is like a tiny god. "You are the most beautiful child of all, and I embrace you like my own blood," the German metal band Rammstein sings in a song about cocaine.

The high lasts about 45 minutes. It is offset by 60,000 deaths in Mexico, shattered countries, billions of dollars in war expenses and killers like Popeye. Almost everyone knows this. But does it make anyone forego drugs? Voluntarily?

Intoxication, whether it's caused by cocaine, marijuana or alcohol, is the opposite of reason. When intoxicated, we seek happiness, greatness, a loss of inhibition, comfort, escape and meaning.

In contrast, no one wins a war. At least not with the old weapons.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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