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.
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.
At the root of the drug policy debate in Latin America is growing recognition that present policies have failed to achieve the desired objectives, the extremely high costs of implementing those policies paid by Latin American countries, and the need to place higher priority on reducing unacceptably high levels of violence. Of particular concern is the spread of organized crime and the resulting violence, corruption and erosion of democratic 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.
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.
Over the past year, the world has eyed Latin America as it has forged forward, in both policy and politics, with a rethink of the “war on drugs.” (See our recent cover story on “Latin America reinventing the war on drugs” here.) But tomorrow, the world will be watching the United States, the birthplace of the “war on drugs,” as three states vote on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.
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.