When the recent Summit of the Americas in Colombia decided to commission a study on whether to decriminalize drugs, many thought that would be the end of it, and the whole thing would be quickly forgotten. Well, maybe not. For starters, it was the first time that such a large group of heads of state ventured into that once taboo area. And there are several other non-related factors that may contribute to put decriminalization in the front burner later this year, or in early 2013
Latin American drug policies have made no dent in the drug trade; instead they have taken a tremendous toll on human lives. In 2009, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI) embarked on an ambitious project to document the real impact of Latin America’s “war on drugs” and to show its human cost through the video testimonies of the victims themselves.
This weekend’s Summit of the Americas did not produce a joint communiqué charting the future of the hemisphere, but the 31 leaders agreed on one thing: The U.S.-led war on drugs has been a dismal failure. The summit pledged to create a panel of experts through the Organization of American States to consider drug policy reforms, and new approaches to stem the violence and power of the drug cartels. In the words of Guatemalan President Otto Perez, a champion of drug liberalization, it is time to “stop being dumb witnesses to a global deceit” and consider treatment, harm reduction and decriminalization as viable alternatives.
Colombia's Constitutional Court approved the government's proposal to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cocaine and marijuana for personal use. Anyone caught with less than 20 grams of marijuana or one gram of cocaine for personal use may receive physical or psychological treatment depending on their state of consumption, but may not be prosecuted or detained, the court ruled.
As the hemisphere’s leaders gather in Colombia this week for the VI Summit of the Americas, their on-camera discussions will be dominated by perennial convention topics: poverty, cooperation, the need for roads. But behind closed doors, they are expected to tackle a more contentious issue: the narcotics trade.
Remarkable drug policy developments are taking place in Latin America. This is not only at the level of political debate, but is also reflected in actual legislative changes in a number of countries. All in all there is an undeniable regional trend of moving away from the ‘war on drugs’. This briefing explains the background to the opening of the drug policy debate in the region, summarises the most relevant aspects of the ongoing drug law reforms in some countries, and makes a series of recommendations that could help to move the debate forward in a productive manner.
The most important story of the Summit of the Americas was the Latin American demand to open the debate on an alternative to the ‘war on drugs’. The emergence of an increasingly independent and assertive Latin America insisting on a change of direction on drugs reflects an important shift in the terms of the relationship with the United States. Clamor for “democratization” of the debate and a search for new alternatives stems from the perception that Latin American societies pay a disproportionate price in lost lives, hijacked justice systems, abuses in overcrowded prisons, and displaced small farmers, because of the U.S.-led strategy that has prioritized stemming the supply of drugs over reducing its own demand.
At the Summit of the Americas, Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed doubt about the war on drugs. “I think what everybody believes and agrees with, and to be frank myself, is that the current approach is not working, but it is not clear what we should do.” It’s admirable for a politician to admit uncertainty. And rare. Especially for a politician who has never expressed anything less than unshakable conviction in the Reaganite nostrums of drug prohibition. But Harper had good reason to be a little shaken.
Latin American leaders are increasingly speaking out against prohibition. And public opinion in America, especially when it comes to legalizing pot, is shifting very rapidly. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has wrapped up a trip to Mexico and Honduras, where he held talks with Central American leaders on regional security efforts and drug trafficking. Biden’s visit comes amid an emerging rift between the Obama administration and its Central American allies on the drug war. There is a growing belief among Central American leaders that decriminalization and legalization of some drugs could help reduce the power of drug cartels and reduce the bloodshed connected to the drug war.
All wars end. Eventually. Even the war on drugs – resilient for so long – is starting to show signs of exhaustion. It is 42 years since President Nixon introduced the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. The act set out to reduce or eliminate the production, supply and consumption of illegal drugs. A year later, after a report revealed a heroin epidemic among US servicemen in Vietnam, the Nixon administration coined the phrase "war on drugs".
The startling, unprogrammed, and rebellious discussion about drugs that took place among hemispheric leaders in April at a summit in Cartagena, Colombia, barely mentioned addiction, because it’s too late for that. The discussion that for the first time in forty years challenged the United States’ dominance on drug issues focused urgently instead on the ways that the financial health, political stability, and national security of virtually every country in the Americas has been undermined by the drug trade.
When President Obama arrives in Colombia for a hemispheric summit this weekend, he will hear Latin American leaders say that the U.S.-orchestrated war on drugs, which criminalizes drug use and employs military tactics to fight gangs, is failing and that broad changes need to be considered. Latin American leaders say they have not developed an alternative model to the approach favored by successive American administrations. But the Colombian government says a range of options — including decriminalizing possession of drugs, legalizing marijuana use and regulating markets — will be debated at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena.
Long before he was in a position to change his country's policies, Barack Obama had firm views on a complex problem: "The war on drugs has been an utter failure. We need to rethink and decriminalize our marijuana laws. We need to rethink how we're operating the drug war." That was in January 2004. Forward to April 2012 and a summit of Latin American leaders, several of whom have become vocal critics of the U.S.-driven war on drugs, in the Colombian city of Cartagena. More than three years into his presidency, Obama made clear that he is not in favor of legalizing drugs or of ending policies that treat drug users as criminals.
A historic meeting of Latin America's leaders, to be attended by Barack Obama, will hear serving heads of state admit that the war on drugs has been a failure and that alternatives to prohibition must now be found. The Summit of the Americas, to be held in Cartagena, Colombia is being seen by foreign policy experts as a watershed moment in the redrafting of global drugs policy in favour of a more nuanced and liberalised approach. Otto Pérez Molina, the president of Guatemala, is pushing his fellow Latin American leaders to use the summit to endorse a new regional security plan that would see an end to prohibition.
Over the past six months the debate on drugs has moved into the open, as sitting heads of state have gone on the record for the first time to say that they would be prepared to consider legalising narcotics rather than fruitlessly fight them. One of the strongest advocates of radical reform has been Otto Pérez Molina. Mr Pérez, a former head of military intelligence, campaigned promising an “iron fist” against crime. He now suggests that the best way to crush Latin America’s drug mafias might be to remove their main source of revenue from the criminal economy by legalising it.