Ernesto Zedillo

El Presidente

Air Date: March 28, 2016

Former Mexico President Ernesto Zedillo talks about rewriting drug policy.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Our guest today is the esteemed dignitary, former President of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, who presided over Mexico’s economic rebirth from 1994 to 2000. A scholar of international economy and politics, Zedillo is Director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization where he interprets the intersection of international policy and governance.

Zedillo serves on the Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose report, “Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work,” launched in 2014. In a forthcoming paper, he deems drug policy a, quote, “shameful failure of modern civilization,” describing a better way forward for our respective Mexican and American criminal justice systems.

First though, in the context of American political discourse, I have to ask him if he is concerned about the toxic xenophobia, xenophobic rhetoric, an un, an ugly nativism that we have seen, and to what he attributes it.

President, it’s a pleasure to have you here, an honor. Thank you for being with me.

ZEDILLO: Oh, thank you for the invitation. Well, I think we have to be very careful about, uh, not overreacting to things that we are hearing in this country – or in other countries – when, uh, political campaigns are taking place. I think it would be very unfair, uh, to characterize a whole country or, you know, sectors of society for things that are being said probably under the impulse of short-term, uh, political, uh, competition. I don’t think, uh, we can say that, uh, in the U.S. – or in other places where there are big news about these expressions of, uh, “xenophobia” – that these expressions are representative of society at large. So that, I think is important to say.

Uh, but once while we say that, I think we have to invite people to think hard about, uh, what is that is bothering those, uh, citizens that, uh, feel uncomfortable about, uh, problems like, uh, illegal, uh, migration or drug trafficking or other things that happen, uh, in, in these societies. And try to invite them to think, uh, deeper and more seriously about the root causes of these, uh, issues, not just, uh, superficially. Not just looking let’s say at the, uh, at the tip of the iceberg. I think we have to see what are the economic forces, the social forces that underlie these, uh, phenomena.

Uh, and in the process of doing that, recognize that, uh, very frequently it is, uh, the poor design of some public policies that lead to these, uh, negative, uh, aspects of these, uh, phenomena. You mentioned migration, you mentioned drug trafficking. Uh, and we can see that, uh, in the case of migration, well, uh, some of the things that are negatively associated to international migration have to do with the way in which countries regulate – or fail to regulate – migration. Or we think about drug policy – and hopefully we will speak, uh, more about that. I think all of the very negative things that we see have to do a lot with the way in which governments, uh, a long time ago decided to tackle the drug problem.

HEFFNER: Let’s talk about that, President. The black market, is that not the most fundamental root cause of this middle class, blue collar anguish in America and across the border too?

ZEDILLO: Well, I think everywhere. Uh, all these, uh, horrible things that come with illegal drug trafficking – and I mean, uh, the money that these organizations, uh, have; the violence that they carry; the criminality that they produce – all of that has to do with the decision originated in governments…uh, the, the way in which they approach the drug problem. Because we have fundamental facts, uh, medical signs says, uh, that, uh, irrespective of your efforts of prevention – and we have never tried a best effort, by the way – irrespective of prevention, there will always be some demand for drugs, right? – or these, uh, these kind of drugs.

Uh, and the second fact is that, if you say, “OK, I just prohibit the use of that drugs” – despite the fact that there will be a demand – immediately you are, uh, engineering a black market, that by definition is going to be taken over by criminal organizations. So it is policy that is creating this, uh, black market. It is policy that is giving these individuals the possibility of exploiting, uh, addictions or the use of these, uh, drugs. And that’s the irony and, and, and the terrible thing about, uh, drug policies in our world – not only in this country but, uh, universally.

HEFFNER: How do you rewrite the policy?

ZEDILLO: Well, you know, first, uh, [LAUGHS] we have to recognize that it is very hard, uh, to, to change this policy, because it’s, uh, a long tradition for… Over 100 years, the approach has been, uh, “prohibit, criminalize….” uh, and it’s very much a, uh, instilled in the, in the way, uh, politicians or legislators, uh, uh, and even of course society, think about this problem. I think what we need to do first is to have an open debate and then let – maybe it’s why I am here, Open Mind – we have to be open-minded. We have to examine the principals, the foundations of this, uh, wrong headed policy. We have to examine the experience. And then we have to think about how to move forward.

And, uh, you mentioned the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Basically what we said: Well, number one, we have to start looking at this, uh, problem as a public health problem. We have to introduce more clearly the human rights dimension. Because in the process of combating drug trafficking, a lot of, uh, uh, damage is done to human rights of a lot of people, uh, all over the world. Uh, we say, you have to de criminalize the use of drugs. I mean, the… Treat, uh… If addiction is a disease, uh, treat people who are addict, uh, as addicts, uh, as sick people. And if people use occasionally – uh, for recreational, uh, uh, purposes, drugs – well, I mean, don’t put them into jail, right? Better do a big prevention effort so that they don’t use, uh, drugs. Uh, and on the other hand, move into, uh, a stage by a stage, carefully, uh, with lots of prudence into the regulation. The same way we do it with alcohol, or the same way we do it with tobacco. Or, if you allow me, the same way, uh, it is done with hundreds of thousands of medicines: that actually if they are not used, uh, properly, they can be toxic, and in fact they can kill people, right? But we don’t say, you know, “We are going to put in jail, uh, the big, uh, uh, pharma company that, uh, produces this, uh, medicine.” Well, we need that medicine for some people, and not because it could be toxic in another person, you are going to prohibit the production and the distribution of that drug. So you need to regulate drugs, uh, uh, not to prohibit drugs. I think that that’s the fundamental difference.

HEFFNER: President, you write, “For too long and with far too few exceptions, drug policies have relied fundamentally on prohibition and law enforcement.” This approach is wholly inconsistent, as you suggest, with “best knowledge from life sciences, sound public health research and economic analysis.” You are an economist. Let’s focus on that piece of “economic analysis.” Is there not a link between the concentration of wealth that’s being privatized and the tendency, the impulse, to arrest, to incarcerate, to imprison for life – in this country – and I don’t know if you think it parallels your own experience and formed by your presidency in Mexico – but that impulse. Have we de stigmatized drug related offenses in a way that can put us on the track that you envision?

ZEDILLO: Well, I think, um… [LAUGHS] The, the, the problem is, Alexander, that, uh, by writing the law – because this is what has been done – that a black market will exit, exist, because of this prohibition. You are opening the door, uh, to criminals – to people who are willing to violate a drug – that, the law – if they expect to have a, a substantial profit. And in the process, they hire or they use, uh, people, uh, who typically tend to be poor…uh, and sometimes in some society, uh, belong to certain sectors of society – uh, in some cases, ethnic, uh, sectors of society – that have been in the past, have been disenfranchised or marginalized or left behind. And at the end of the day, the picture we have today, it’s a terrifying picture – uh, in this and in all parts of, of the world – where we see that some parts of the population are over represented relative to their basic demographics, let’s say in incarceration, right?

Uh, but this has to do, uh, with the way in which this policy has been, uh, designed… that ends up affecting, uh, the weakest and the most marginal, uh, uh, people in the society. And this is totally unfair, because while this is happening, some very bad people are getting very rich. And, uh, they are using violence, they are violating the law, and not only incurring in this form of criminalities, but other forms of terrible criminalities. Because, uh, I visit my country, those that are involved in drug trafficking, are also the ones, uh, who kidnap people…are those who organize, uh, these, uh, illegal, uh, migration of people. Uh, but at the end of the day, it’s because they have been empowered by policy.

HEFFNER: There is an entire industry that breeds – in this country – as a result of mass incarceration.

ZEDILLO: Public policy gives rise to the black market. Because of that black market, uh, a lot of people end up in jail. Uh, at some point in this country, there was a decision to open, uh, this, uh, activity of, uh, building jails and, uh, managing jails to the private sector. And of course, uh uh, uh uh, I don’t think these people are doing anything illegal, there is a legal opportunity to do a business, building and managing. And I would say they tried to do it properly, I guess, the jails… But at the end of the day, they become a vested interest in the existing system. I am not saying that these people deliberately, you know, support, uh, the black market or anything like that; but I think again this is a consequence of our wrong-headed policy. And they… We know that sometimes when there has been some, uh, public consultations, uh, to have more, uh, uh, progressive drug policies – uh, the lobby, uh, the jail lobby, has work against those, uh, policy attempts. That’s not illegal – I mean, they have the right to promote their interest – but, uh, their interest will not exist as it is today if drug policies were different.

HEFFNER: The paradox is: It’s the result of a black market, and not a free market. Once you are in prison, it is the free market. But you don’t have the free market on the, on the other end of the spectrum… But that’s not the case in a lot of countries. And I, and I thought you could give our viewers a sense of global perspective: What is the global governance that can, that can resolve this issue most fully?

ZEDILLO: There is indeed, uh, a formal global governance for this issue. Uh, in the United Nations, there have been three conventions, uh, to which, uh, countries have adhered practically universally. And the problem with those conventions is that, uh, they start with the principle that, uh, there are illegal drugs, and there must, they must be prohibited. And that the production and the traffic, uh, of these drugs must be combated with a law enforcement instruments. So it’s, uh, exactly the same model that has been applied in the U.S., uh, in my own country, for a long time, and it has become inscribed in these international conventions.

And this is, uh, somehow a problem because when, uh, there is a country that wants to have, uh, a more updated, uh, policy – a policy consistent with better knowledge and with, uh, all the experience we have – they find themselves in the, in front of a problem which is, “OK, I, I have a better… I can do a better policy. But in doing that, I will violate an international convention that actually I have accepted to be the law of the land in my, in my country.” So that’s why we are calling for a review of these international conventions so that countries can have the latitude of, uh, designing and implementing, uh, better policies without violating the international conventions to which they have, uh, subscribed. Uh, unfortunately – and I must, uh, say this, uh, with sadness – uh, that process is not moving in the right direction.

HEFFNER: How so?

ZEDILLO: I myself, you know, and we tried to do this back in the ’90s. Mexico along with other countries, uh, promoted a special session of the United Nations to discuss these topics, and see whether we can start opening a new avenue. And frankly, we failed. We achieved some change in language; we achieved, uh, countries that have, uh, most of the demand, uh, accept more of the responsibility in this problem; but not a fundamental change.

Now, uh, there will be another special session of the United Nations General Assembly this April. We were hopeful that this would be really the beginning of a serious analysis of how much this policy has failed, with a view to eventually have a revision of the international framework. But, uh, as we look, uh, to the preparatory work of this special session, uh, I can conclude with, uh, some confidence, or high confidence, that this “special session” is going to be a failure. There will be no, uh, attempt, first, to recognize that these politics have failed. Uh, it is in the public domain, the document that they intend to approve. And there is not a single mention that the policy has failed. And the data to support this, uh, uh, proposition that the policy has failed is very robust. And yet, that it’s ignored.

And then, of course, there is, uh, some nicer language, uh, saying that you have to introduce – uh, as we suggested in the Global Commission – the human rights dimension, the public health considerations, and so on, and so forth.

But the fundamental point is that the conventions are right and should be the basis for any future policies. And that, of course, is, uh, what you would call an oxymoron, right? Uh, that is not true, because if the experience says that the policies have failed, uh, you cannot say then that the conventions are “right.” And if the conventions do not allow really, uh, better policies, you cannot say, “OK, you have the conventions as a foundation, but we have to have better policies.” That’s an impossibility.

HEFFNER: So President, what’s the alternative to that intransigence that often is epitomized by the United Nations?

ZEDILLO: Well, you know, it’s not all… I mean, the United Nations… We should not blame the organization as such, because the organization cannot go beyond what the member countries decide to do…

HEFFNER: I understand. But how do you transcend that? Do you think there is a, if not a fortitude to show…?

ZEDILLO: Well, I think we, we have to… We have to keep, uh, engaged, uh, in this, uh, debate. Uh, it would be unfair to say that, uh, nothing has changed. We have seen evolution in this country, in the United States. We have seen evolution, uh, in some, uh, even some Latin American countries like, uh, Uruguay. We see different attitudes and even language from the part of the leaders in, in a number of Latin American countries. So I think we have to keep, uh, debating and engaging, uh, public opinion leaders, uh, and society at large in this, uh, discussion. Uh, and, and doing it in a, in a way that, uh…

It is not that people like myself – who are in favor of changing these policies – uh, agree with, uh, the consumption of drugs. I don’t like, uh, anybody to, to have, uh, these substances. Uh, the same way that I don’t like people to smoke, uh, cigarettes. Or the same way [LAUGHS] that I always, uh, you know, telling people, you know, “You gotta be careful with what you drink, [LAUGHS] because, right? [LAUGHS], it has consequences.” Uh, but, uh… So we are… We don’t advocate. We want a better way, uh, to deal with this issue of drugs. Uh, to reduce damages, uh, to society.

And in fact to, to recognize that sometimes having more progressive policies could lead to less consumption! And we have a specific case in Portugal. Portugal 15 years ago decided to change, uh, its policies towards a more, uh, less repressive and more medical oriented approach. And consumption of heroin – which was a big problem – or was becoming a big problem – uh, has been reduced. So it’s not that we are just putting forward a hypothesis or, or an idea. Now we have evidence that, uh, more intelligent policies can work and, uh, combat, uh, more effectively the criminality that stems from that, uh, illicit traffic.

HEFFNER: Is that also true of other European countries?

ZEDILLO: Well, Switzerland, it’s another case in point. They used to have – particularly in some cities like Zurich – uh, a very bad heroin problem. And they went, uh, for different policies in that, uh, uh, a colleague of ours, uh, in the Commission – uh, a former president of the Swiss Confederation – uh, Ruth Dreifuss to play a, a very important role as Minister and then as President of the Confederation. And the results are evident. You know, the criminality collapsed. Uh, the… Other aspects, uh, negative aspects associated with this problem have been reduced, uh, dramatically. Uh, they have the question of, uh, Amsterdam with the, uh, marijuana… I mean, there is, uh, evidence… But of course this is, uh, something that has to be tried, uh, uh, very carefully…uh, using the best, uh, evidence, the best knowledge, you know? You have to go step by step. But I am very confident, that if it is tried, it can be shown that, uh, things can change for the better.

HEFFNER: How do you, as a governor, as a president of a country today, balance the need for instantaneous profit and growth with, with really the principle that you, you care for your brother?

ZEDILLO: Well, uh, first, it will be very simple. If everything were only about, uh, profit making in, in Wall Street, then it would be a rather simple problem to, to address. I think, uh, first of all, of all, we, we need to recognize, uh, the complexity of the issues, uh, we are, uh, dealing with. Uh, I think we have, uh, several layers of complications… First we have, uh, economies that are underperforming relative to their potential. We have, uh, it’s lower economic growth, uh, costs, not only by the sequence of the crisis, but also because there are some structural conditions that are changing. Like in Europe, the demographics, it’s slower growth in population. Uh, so we have to recognize that.

Well, we have the question of technology, which is very important to, to discuss because, uh, technology is a great thing. But in the process in which new technologies come to be used, you know, there are some people who lose and others who win. Are you going to stop technological development? No. Because long-term, that will be, uh, something which benefits most people, or the majority of people. So how do you compensate for that force that is affecting, uh, uh, sectors of the population so that they don’t feel bad about it? You have to level the playing field. Uh, and how do you do that? Well, you have question yourself, uh, your educational systems. Uh, are educational systems providing the education that these, uh, young men and women need for the 21st century? And the answer is: not necessarily. We need to do so much better.

We need to do more active social policies. You know, we have to save, uh, sometimes, uh, capitalism from capitalists. I think capitalism is a great system. We haven’t invented a better system to create wealth, to create income, to create jobs. But if we don’t moderate, uh, the downsides of capitalism – and if we don’t make sure that everybody has a chance in that system – then we kill capitalism…and I don’t think we want to kill capitalism. So I would say the financial sector, uh, can be part of the problem, and authorities have been struggling now for several years finding ways to regulate the financial sector in a way that it doesn’t count, cause other derivative effects on the economy and on societies therefore. But it’s not, uh, the only problem. I think that the problem is much more complex, uh, it requires a lot of analysis, and maybe we can have another opportunity [LAUGHS] to talk about it.

HEFFNER: Yes, I am sorry to give you such a giant question to conclude the program. President Zedillo, thank you for coming on the show.

ZEDILLO: Thanks for the invitation.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.