The drug policy reform agenda in the Americas (Version 2)

IDPC Briefing Paper
August 2013

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.

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More than forty years after the U.S. “war on drugs” was launched, most Latin American countries face far deeper problems with drug trafficking. Drug dependency – and related health and societal consequences – continues to spread as trafficking routes multiply, bringing more and more Latin Americans into contact with illicit substances. Jails are bursting at the seams with low-level drug offenders, causing a serious humanitarian crisis, while ineffective or lax law enforcement and corruption ensure that few medium or largescale traffickers end up behind bars.

As noted, organized crime has spread its reach across the region, posing significant challenges to states characterized by weak law enforcement and judicial institutions. As succinctly stated by Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, “We have seen that prohibitionism and the war against drugs have not given the results hoped for. Quite the opposite, the cartels have grown in strength, the flow of arms towards Central America from the north has grown and deaths in our country have grown. This has forced us to search for a more appropriate response.”

While discontent with present policy in Latin America had been bubbling under the surface for some time, the 2009 launch of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy’s report marked a turning point, sparking widespread media coverage of the Commission’s calls for drug policy reform. As a result, more influential newspapers and influential individuals came out in support of drug policy reform. By the launch of the report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy two years later, drug policy was front and center on the regional agenda. However, it is only recently that ex-presidents have been joined by sitting presidents, such as Colombia’s Juan Manual Santos and Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, in calling for reconsideration of the prevailing international drug control regime.

Policy recommendations

Meaningful drug policy reform will no doubt be a long and messy process, yet demands for reform are steadily growing across the hemisphere. Latin American leaders have played a key role in advancing regional and international drug control debates and some countries, such as Bolivia and Uruguay, are moving forward with significant reforms. Numerous efforts could and should be undertaken to maintain the momentum and advance drug policy debates and reforms:

• President Obama should allow Colorado and Washington to implement the referendums approved by the citizens in those states and should participate constructively in the drug policy debate at home and abroad; in the least, the U.S. and Canadian governments should show greater tolerance for the drug policy debate that has blossomed across Latin America.

• As the drug policy debate continues, there are a series of reforms that can be undertaken now by countries that are in-line with the flexibility allowed by the conventions. Of these, perhaps the most significant are the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of drugs for personal consumption; drug law reform to ensure proportionality in sentencing and alternatives to incarceration for those convicted of low-level, nonviolent drug offenses; and the expansion of evidence-based treatment services for people dependent on drugs, which remain woefully inadequate across the region.

• In Central American and other countries facing high levels of violence, law enforcement agencies should consider adopting focuseddeterrence and selective targeting strategies aimed at reducing violence and promoting development, rather than simply focusing on attempts to stifle the flow of drugs to the United States and Europe.

• Countries across the region should support the efforts of the government of Uruguay to create legal, regulated markets for cannabis. Countries should be given the flexibility to experiment with and implement policies that are appropriate for their national realities. In addition, much could be learned from the Uruguayan experience about basic questions such as how to implement regulatory frameworks that avoid, or limit, parallel black markets and the impact of creating legal, regulated markets on the consumption of cannabis, other drugs and alcohol.

• Bolivia’s experience to gain international acceptance for the use of the coca leaf in its natural form points to the need for the modernization and revision of the existing international drug control conventions. On the coca issue, the WHO should undertake a review of the coca leaf and consider the possibility to remove it from Schedule I of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. More broadly, serious convention reform is needed to make them “fit for purpose” and the 2016 UNGASS on Drugs provides an ideal forum for initiating that process.

• Having launched the 2016 UNGASS on drugs, Latin American leaders should take advantage of the opportunity, through their foreign ministries and missions in New York and Vienna, to play a key role in defining its content, ensuring that it maintains a reformoriented focus.

• Latin American governments and civil society organizations should organize forums for debating the OAS analytical and scenarios reports at the local and national level. They should ensure an active debate on drug policy issues at regional forums, including the Meeting of Ministers Responsible for Public Security in the Americas, to be held in Medellin, Colombia in November 2013, and the next bi-annual CICAD meeting also to be held in Colombia in December 2013. These should lay the groundwork for the 2014 OAS General Assembly Special Session focusing on drug policy, which should be structured to ensure a serious, informed debate and to allow the hemisphere’s foreign ministers to come to consensus on at least initial drug policy reforms.