The Organization of American States' (OAS) latest drug consumption report highlights shifting trends in drug use among youths in the Western Hemisphere. One noteworthy trend is changing cocaine consumption among high school students in South America, when compared to the United States -- the region's largest overall drug consumer. While cocaine use among US high school students has declined since peaking in 1998, consumption in South America has increased, most notably in Argentina and Uruguay, and less so in other nations like Chile and Brazil.
In recent years, the Americas have been at the forefront of calls for a meaningful review of traditional approaches to drug control based on tough law enforcement and incarceration. The region has borne many of the costs of this approach, including enduring prison overcrowding, violence, and the proliferation of organised criminal organisations. Past policies have caused considerable health and social harms as well. Forced crop eradication programmes have only contributed to cycles of poverty and punitive responses to drug consumption have expanded in lieu of public health approaches.
Across the Americas, an unprecedented debate on drug policy reform is underway. While a regional consensus on what form those reforms should take remains elusive, there are at least two issues where consensus is growing: the need to address drug use as a public health, rather than criminal, issue and the need to promote alternatives to incarceration for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders and ensure proportionality in sentencing for drug-related crimes. Draconian drug laws were often adopted in Latin American countries with the encouragement – if not outright diplomatic, political and economic pressure – from the U.S. government.