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.
Two years ago, California’s bid to legalize marijuana—Proposition 19—achieved great notoriety in Latin America, but ultimately fell short at the ballot box. Next Tuesday, voters in the state of Washington appear ready to do what Prop 19’s supporters could not quite achieve—an Election Day victory.
In recent years there has been much talk of the so-called “Portuguese model,” based on an initiative that led to the use of illicit drugs being decriminalised in 2001. In fact, it is often said that Portugal was the first country in Europe to decriminalise drug use de jure, while Spain, for example, took that step de facto for the first time in 1974, except that it was not through a specific law but rather as a result of a Supreme Court ruling.
A report by a group of prominent Australians that recommends Australia rethink its criminalisation of illicit drugs has been backed by the Victorian branch of the Australian Medical Association. The report recommended that cannabis and ecstasy be decriminalised for people aged 16 and older, who are willing to be recorded on a national confidential user's register. Users would be able to purchase drugs from an approved supplier, likely a chemist.
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 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 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
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.
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.
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.