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.
At the recent Summit of the Americas, Latin America's leaders pressed Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama to study alternatives to the failed war on drugs; even Mr. Harper, architect of mandatory minimums for minor drug offences at home, acknowledged the current approach isn't working. The 31 hemispheric leaders agreed to appoint a panel to study reform of global drug policies. The panel could spare itself the trouble and endorse the groundbreaking report of a blue-ribbon Global Commission on Drug Policy.
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.
Over the past six months the debate on drugs has moved into the open, as sitting heads of state have gone on the record for the first time to say that they would be prepared to consider legalising narcotics rather than fruitlessly fight them. One of the strongest advocates of radical reform has been Otto Pérez Molina. Mr Pérez, a former head of military intelligence, campaigned promising an “iron fist” against crime. He now suggests that the best way to crush Latin America’s drug mafias might be to remove their main source of revenue from the criminal economy by legalising it.
At the Summit of the Americas, Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed doubt about the war on drugs. “I think what everybody believes and agrees with, and to be frank myself, is that the current approach is not working, but it is not clear what we should do.” It’s admirable for a politician to admit uncertainty. And rare. Especially for a politician who has never expressed anything less than unshakable conviction in the Reaganite nostrums of drug prohibition. But Harper had good reason to be a little shaken.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
At the upcoming Summit of the Americas, President Dilma has an unprecedented opportunity to contribute to building a new architecture for global drug policy. She can make a decisive break with the past. A new approach would emphasize public health, social justice and cultures of peace rather than repression, enforcement and war. If Brazil is to consolidate its international legitimacy and position as promoter of human rights, it needs to adopt more humane policies back home.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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."
The illegality of the successful drug export business means that its multi-billion-dollar profits go to criminal gangs. Their battles for market control have a high cost: according to the UN, eight of the world’s ten most violent countries are in Latin America or the Caribbean. Drugs are not the only business of organised crime, but they account for the bulk of the gangs’ income and thus their firepower. Honduras, a strategic spot on the trafficking route, has the world’s highest murder rate, about 80 times that of western Europe.
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.