By Sara Miller Llana, Staff writer, Sebastian Scholl , Sara Shahriari, Latin America correspondent
29 July 2012
Like thousands of other Bolivians, Marcela Lopez Vasquez's parents migrated to the Chapare region, in the Andean tropics, desperate to make a living after waves of economic and environmental upheaval hit farming and mining communities in the 1970s and '80s.
Uruguay's proposal to legalize marijuana sales – and make its government the sole seller – reflects a growing worldwide urge to find new and less violent solutions to an old but more deadly drug war. The U.S. – which has emphatically rejected Latin America’s increasing call for marijuana legalization – is no doubt irked by Mujica’s move, especially since his bill also calls on the international community to consider marijuana legalization. So, probably, is the U.N.’s International Narcotics Control Board, which doesn’t even think Bolivians should be allowed to grow and chew coca leaves for traditional uses. But the U.S. and U.N. mindset on drug legalization is hardly as dominant as it was just a few years ago. The world seems fed up with the status quo.
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.
Voters in Colorado and Washington state who approved the recreational use of marijuana Tuesday sent a salvo from the ballot box that will ricochet around Latin America, a region that's faced decades of bloodshed from the U.S.-led war on drugs. Experts said the moves were likely to give momentum to countries such as Uruguay that are marching toward legalization, to undercut Mexican criminal gangs and to embolden those who demand greater debate about how to combat illegal substances.
Following the release of a major draft report on drug policy in the Americas, the secretary-general of the Organisation of American States (OAS) called for the beginning of debate aimed at reforming those policies throughout the region. Many of the region’s leaders have expressed frustration with the limits and exorbitant costs of current policies and their desire for a more creative debate. But according to John Walsh, who participated in writing the OAS report, there is a lot of scepticism over whether the OAS will be up to the task, especially given U.S. domination of the issue.
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.
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.
Latin American drug policies have made no dent in the drug trade; instead they have taken a tremendous toll on human lives. In 2009, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI) embarked on an ambitious project to document the real impact of Latin America’s “war on drugs” and to show its human cost through the video testimonies of the victims themselves.
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.
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."
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.
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.
This year’s annual General Assembly meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), which brings together the hemisphere’s foreign ministers, marked a milestone in the Latin American drug policy debate. For the first time, the drug policy issue was the primary theme of a hemispheric meeting and, in a closed-door meeting of the foreign ministers, a process was laid out for continuing the discussion, culminating in a Special Session of the General Assembly to be held in 2014.
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.
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".
We, the undersigned human rights organizations, address you on this Fourth Meeting of Ministers Responsible for Public Security (MISPA) to follow up on the call upon governments to revise the orientation of drug policies that are being implemented in the Americas. This request for the governments took place during the 43rd Session of the OAS General Assembly which took place last June.
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.
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 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.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon says the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in two U.S. states limits that country's "moral authority" to ask other nations to combat or restrict illegal drug trafficking. Calderon says the legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado represents a fundamental change that requires the rethinking of public policy in the entire Western Hemisphere.