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.
Major divisions over the global "war on drugs" have been revealed in a leaked draft of a UN document setting out the organisation's long-term strategy. The draft, written in September shows there are serious divisions over the longstanding US-led policy promoting prohibition as an solution to the problem. Instead, a number of countries are pushing for the "war on drugs" to be seen in a different light, placing greater emphasis on treating drug consumption as a public health problem, rather than a criminal justice matter. (See also: Drug control policies are changing: Why? And why has it taken so long?)
At the annual UN General Assembly meeting held in New York, presidents from around the world have the chance to state their views on the key international issues of the day. Not surprisingly, the crisis in Syria, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the Millennium Development Goals took center stage this year. Yet a careful viewing of the speeches of the Latin American presidents illustrates the growing voice of Latin American leaders calling for meaningful reform of drug control policies.
The "war on drugs" has not been won, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told the United Nations, exhorting the world body to add teeth to the Special Session on Drugs in 2016, proposed by Mexico and accepted by the world body. The Organization of American States was commissioned to study new approaches to combating illegal drugs. The studies were delivered in May proposing that the United Nations give them serious consideration in time for the special session on drugs.
At the root of the drug policy debate in Latin America is growing recognition that present policies have failed to achieve the desired objectives, the extremely high costs of implementing those policies paid by Latin American countries, and the need to place higher priority on reducing unacceptably high levels of violence. Of particular concern is the spread of organized crime and the resulting violence, corruption and erosion of democratic institutions.
Latin America has emerged at the vanguard of efforts to promote debate on drug policy reform. For decades, Latin American governments largely followed the drug control policies and programs of Washington’s so-called war on drugs. Yet two parallel trends have resulted in a dramatic change in course: the emergence of left-wing governments that have challenged Washington’s historic patterns of unilateralism and interventionism and growing frustration with the failure of the prohibitionist drug control model put forward by the US government.
A whiff of change is in the air regarding drug control policy. Officials in two American states, Colorado and Washington, are pondering how to implement their voters’ decisions last November to legalise cannabis. One immediate consequence is that the United States will be in breach of the UN Convention. Good. It should now join Latin American governments in an effort to reform that outdated document to allow signatories room to experiment. Imposing a failed policy on everybody benefits nobody.
Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico – hardly liberal bastions – have taken the matter a step further. The Latin American countries, each threatened by drug violence, sent a clearly worded declaration to the United Nations, inviting member states to undertake a consultation process to come up with more effective drug policy strategies. They urged the UN to “exercise its leadership…. to conduct deep reflection to analyze all available options, including regulatory or market measures, in order to establish a new paradigm,” the declaration states, translated into English by the Guatemala Times.
The presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala all called for a vigorous global debate of drug laws at the United Nations on Wednesday, raising new questions about the wisdom of the four-decade-old, U.S.-led "war on drugs." Although none of the leaders explicitly called for drugs to be legalized, they suggested at the U.N. General Assembly that they would welcome wholesale changes to policies that have shown scant evidence of limiting drug flows. Guatemalan president Perez Molina said his government "would like to establish an international group of countries that are well disposed to reforming global policies on drugs."