The Organization of American States (OAS) adopted by acclamation a resolution that underscores "the importance of hemispheric and international cooperation to jointly tackling the world drug problem, by promoting and strengthening comprehensive policies and, where appropriate, the modernization and professionalization of government institutions."
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina rose to power in 2011 on the promise of crushing organized crime. The former army general pledged high-security prisons, an increased police force and the deployment of soldiers in the fight against drug gangs, which have transformed Guatemala into one of the most violent places in the world.
Seven of the world’s eight most violent countries lie on the bloody trafficking route from the cocaine fields of the Andes to the nostrils of North America. So it is unsurprising that Latin American leaders are fed up with the way drugs are policed. The international rules on prohibition were laid down by the United Nations more than 50 years ago, making drug policy difficult for individual countries to reform. But diplomats and do-gooders are finding ever more chinks in prohibition’s legal armour.
This Friday, May 17, in Bogotá, Colombia, Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza will present Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos with the outcomes of the hemispheric drug policy review that was mandated by the heads of state at the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena.
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.
The Secretary General of the OAS highlighted the assignment received during the Sixth Summit of the Americas in 2012, which urged the OAS to analyze the results of drug policies in the Americas and to explore new approaches to strengthen these efforts and make them more effective. The Foreign Minister of Guatemala emphasized that, 50 years after signing the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, "the world starts the task of reflection and evaluation of what we have been doing and how we can achieve more effective results."
Guatemalan PresidentOtto Perez said he is feeling less alone in his drive tore-think the fight against drug-trafficking than a year ago, when heshocked fellow Central American leaders with a proposal to decriminalisedrugs. Perez has proposed what he calls a "third way" inbetween all-out drugs legalisation and complete prohibition. He saysthe latter approach has failed as illegal drug use remains high despitedecades of being outlawed around the world.
George Soros has called for an end to the West's "war on drugs". Soros has thrown his weight behind a push by Guatemalan President Perez Molina, who recently declared that prohibition should be abandoned. Speaking at the World Economic Forum, Soros said that the narcotics trade threatened stability in many countries. President Molina said he would organise a meeting of Latin American leaders next June to discuss the issue. Costa Rica, Mexico and Colombia have opened talks with U.S. officials to prepare for the legalization of marijuana in some U.S. states, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla declared.
This is at the heart of the awakening in Latin America, a feeling that drugs prohibition has allowed rich and powerful cartels to rise to such prominence that they threaten the institutions of the state – the police, the judicial system, the army, the media, and the body politic. In Latin America it is not about rehab and criminality, it is about an existential threat to the state.
A group of Latin American leaders declared that votes by two U.S. states to legalize marijuana have important implications for efforts to quash drug smuggling, offering the first government reaction from a region increasingly frustrated with the U.S.-backed war on drugs. The declaration by the leaders of Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Costa Rica did not explicitly say they were considering weakening their governments' efforts against marijuana smuggling, but it strongly implied the votes last week in Colorado and Washington would make enforcement of marijuana bans more difficult.
Washington’s hard-lined anti-legalization position is unlikely to waiver regardless of who wins the upcoming U.S. presidential election. A more important question lies in Washington’s loss of influence within the region over the last ten years. As a result, the potential for legalization makes the overall political ramifications unpredictable for the region. This is especially true when it comes to Uruguay, a country that will soon be voting on the world’s first legalization legislation.
While Latin America insists that policy change must be the focus of a coordinated global effort, the region seems bent on advancing reform, with or without international support. “We have systematically called for ample discussion on these matters on the international stage, but we have only found obstacles. Ultimately, Latin America has the autonomy to advance measures that we feel are most pertinent for our citizens,” says Julio Calzada, secretary general of Uruguay’s National Committee on Drugs.
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."
The president-elect of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, said Mexico should have a debate about legalizing and regulating, an approach advocated by other Latin American leaders to take marijuana sale profits out of the hands of the drug cartels. While insisting he was not in favor of legalizing drugs, he said, "I'm in favor of opening a new debate in the strategy in the way we fight drug trafficking. It is quite clear that after several years of this fight against drug trafficking, we have more drug consumption, drug use and drug trafficking. That means we are not moving in the right direction. Things are not working."
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 global debate on drug policy is getting more interesting, due in no small part to initiatives from Latin America. The Uruguayan government’s June 20 announcement that it will propose legislation to create a legal, regulated market for marijuana is just the latest development to challenge business as usual in the “war on drugs.” The question of alternatives to the drug war took center stage at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia in April, which culminated in an announcement by President Santos tasking the Organization of American States (OAS) with evaluating present policies and laying out other possible options.
After decades of war with drug cartels, Latin America faces sickening levels of violence and corruption that have spread throughout the region. At a summit meeting of Western Hemisphere leaders in Cartagena, Colombia, last month, several leaders urged that there be a wide-ranging discussion that even considered drug legalization as an alternative to the militarized war on drugs. Is it it time for Latin America and the United States to abandon the war on drugs and deal with the issue as a matter of public health rather than combat? See: Stop Following a Failed Policy, by Otto Pérez Molina, president of Guatemala.
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 war on drugs doesn’t just cause human misery. It contributes to the political instability of many parts of the world. Countries such as Mali, Guinea Bissau and Liberia are ill-equipped to confront drug traffickers, and the judiciary and police are vulnerable to corruption. Cocaine seizures are worth more than some countries’ entire security budgets. Why should fragile states continue to bear the brunt of a futile anti-narcotics crusade? Instead, the world should strengthen the defences of states under attack, and help them build alternatives to the drug trade. Consumer countries should focus on reducing demand. Prohibition is far from being an adequate answer.