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.
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.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has repeated his suggestion that Guatemala and the other nations of Central America should consider decriminalizing drugs in order to help reduce violence. The president said he will propose legalizing drugs in Central America in an upcoming meeting with the region's leaders. Maybe Otto Perez Molina does not believe that decriminalization is a viable option, but instead is raising the stakes of the game in order to get the US's attention and getting the US to contribute more resources to battling narcotrafficking in Central America.
Vice President Joe Biden heads to Latin America Sunday amid unprecedented pressure from political and business leaders to talk about something U.S. officials have no interest in debating: decriminalizing drugs. Presidents of Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia and Mexico, all grappling with the extremely violent fallout of a failing drug war, have said in recent weeks they'd like to open up the discussion of legalizing drugs. Argentina, Uruguay, Peru and Mexico already allow the use of small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption, while political leaders from Brazil and Colombia are discussing alternatives to locking up drug users.
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.
Given the recent calls by several Latin American presidents for a debate on legalising drugs, would the United States show any flexibility in its stance on prohibition? “None,” was the answer of Joe Biden, America’s vice-president, who was in Mexico City on March 5th to meet the three main contenders in July’s presidential race. Mr Biden arrived under unprecedented pressure from regional presidents for the United States to give way on prohibition, which many in the region blame for generating appalling violence.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez on Saturday set out a raft of proposals to tackle rampant drug-fuelled violence in Central America, including decriminalization of narcotics or establishing a regional court to try traffickers. "The proposal is decriminalization," Perez said at a regional summit to address security throughout the region. "We are talking about creating a legal framework to regulate the production, transit and consumption of drugs."
Political divides in the Central American region around drug control surfaced sharply at the recent regional summit on “New Routes against Drugs Trafficking”, that took place on Saturday 24 March in Guatemala. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina called for an open debate on the security crisis and on policies to reduce the rampant drug-related violence, stating that current policies have been so ineffective that all options including the ‘depenalisation’ of drugs should be on the table.
Guatemala will not fail to honour any of its international commitments to fighting drug trafficking. But nor are we willing to continue as dumb witnesses to a global self-deceit. We cannot eradicate global drug markets, but we can certainly regulate them as we have done with alcohol and tobacco markets. Drugs should be treated as public health problems, not criminal justice issues. Our children and grandchildren demand from us a more effective drug policy, not a more ideological response. Next weekend, leaders from the Americas will meet in Cartagena. This is an opportunity to start a realistic and responsible intergovernmental dialogue on drug policy.
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.
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".
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.
The Cartagena Summit of the Americas where heads of state will meet in middle April comes at a time of acute crime crisis in Latin America and growing opposition to U.S. counternarcotics policies. President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala has called for legalizing the drug trade, following calls for drug policy reform of several former Latin American presidents. El Salvador has been reeling from allegations of a deal between criminal gangs and the government. Mexico has been overwhelmed by drug violence.
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.
The government of Colombia pushed for the most far-reaching change to policy on drugs since US president Richard Nixon declared war on narcotics four decades ago. Hosting the sixth Summit of the Americas, for which 33 leaders of the hemisphere's 35 nations – including President Barack Obama – have assembled in Cartagena, President Juan Manuel Santos proposed the establishment of a taskforce of experts, economists and academics to analyse the realities of global drug addiction, trafficking and profiteering, with a view to a complete overhaul of strategy.
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.
Present international drug control policies are deeply-rooted and change will no doubt come slowly. However, as a result of the Cartagena summit, for the first time a meaningful debate on developing and implementing drug control policies that are more humane and effective is underway. The genie is out and will be very hard to put back in the bottle, as much as U.S. officials might try.
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.
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
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.