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.
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 House of Commons will today debate whether to rethink the war on drugs. While it is only a backbench business debate, and is therefore not binding, it still represents a step towards reviewing the UK’s drug laws. There is a simple reason why the UK’s drug policy is so expensive and ineffective: the law is so old. Policy is still dictated by the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, signed into law shortly after the 1971 UN Convention on Drugs. In 43 years since, the approach has failed catastrophically.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Latin America is now at the vanguard of international efforts to promote drug policy reform: Bolivia has rewritten its constitution to recognize the right to use the coca leaf for traditional and legal purposes, Uruguay has become the first nation in the world to adopt a legal, regulated Cannabis market, and Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Ecuador are openly critiquing the prevailing international drug control paradigm at the UN. And now with the United States itself relaxing its marijuana laws state by state, the U.S. prohibitionist drug war strategies are losing credibility in the region.
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 "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.
Faced with this soiled wedge between state legislation and federal law within the United States, Mexico's President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto and his advisors have already concluded there will have to be a significant change in their anti-narcotics policy. Weeding out the marijuana issue was prudently left to behind closed door discussions.
Mexico and the United States cannot pursue diverging policies on marijuana legalization, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto was quoted as saying, hinting he may be open to following the lead taken by some U.S. states in changing drug laws. Political pressure has grown in Mexico to take a more liberal stance on marijuana. In an interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais, Pena Nieto said "we can't continue on this road of inconsistency between the legalization we've had [...] in the most important consumer market, the United States, and in Mexico where we continue to criminalize production of marijuana."
Relationships with countries racked by drug violence and organized crime should focus more on economic development and less on the endless battles against drug traffickers and organized crime capos that have left few clear victors. The countries, Mexico in particular, need to set their own course on security, with the United States playing more of a backing role. That approach runs the risk of being seen as kowtowing to governments more concerned about their public image than the underlying problems tarnishing it.
Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala face the need to modify their approach to the fight against drug trafficking and are urging the world to do the same. But Mexico and Colombia’s willingness to make the necessary changes is unclear. The three countries are connected by a powerful circuit of trafficking of drugs – whose main market is the United States – weapons and money from illegal activities. But the extent of the problem and the way drug organisations operate in each one of these countries vary.
There is increasing evidence that the war on drugs has failed, with criminalization often creating more problems than it solves, said Helen Clark, the head of the United Nations Development Program. Clark, a former New Zealand prime minister, said Latin American leaders should be encouraged to develop different policies to tackle the drug scourge. "I've been a health minister in my past and there's no doubt that the health position would be to treat the issue of drugs as primarily a health and social issue rather than a criminalized issue."
Latin American countries are turning to Europe for lessons on fighting drugs after souring on the prohibition-style approach of the violent and costly U.S.-led war on drugs. Until recently, most Latin American countries had zero-tolerance rules on drugs inspired by the United States. But now countries from Brazil to Guatemala are exploring relaxing penalties for personal use of narcotics, following examples such as Spain and Portugal that have channeled resources to prevention rather than clogging jails.
Despite efforts by governments in Latin America, illicit drugs continue to provide one of the largest incomes for criminal organizations, enabling them to penetrate and corrupt political and social 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.
Argentina has given the first sign that Uruguay’s groundbreaking cannabis reform just may have started a domino effect across Latin America. Following the momentous vote by its smaller neighbor’s senate this month — making it the first nation in the world to completely legalize the cannabis — Argentina’s anti-drug czar Juan Carlos Molina has called for a public discussion in his country about emulating the measure. His comments are the clearest sign yet that Uruguay’s strategy has kicked off a trend in the region.