Drug Legalization: A Step Closer, But Still a Long Shot

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A recent report on drug policy, backed by high-profile political figures, argues for a move away from the “zero tolerance” approach. However, it fails to offer any clear solutions on halting violence and organized crime, and has been rejected by a number of Latin American governments.

The Global Commission on Drug Policy’s report (get it English and Spanish here) — issued June 2 in New York City and signed by an unprecedented 19 high level world leaders, including former presidents of Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Switzerland, the incumbent Prime Minister of Greece, the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, the former European Union High Commissioner Javier Solana, and the British billionaire Richard Branson, among others — may be the most important call ever for reform to the 1988 United Nations Convention on Drugs (pdf version here).

That convention, adopted worldwide and enforced largely by the United States, set the international ground rules for the so-called “war on drugs.”

The Global Commission is trying to rewrite those rules. And this recent proposal is nothing short of a paradigm shift.

At its heart, the report rethinks two basic assumptions held by both the U.S. and the UN: First, that a “drug free world” must be the central objective guiding public policy on drugs; second, that a framework to implement this common policy objective must be imposed on all countries involved through the “shared responsibility” model.

It begins by condemning the “war on drugs” as a failure. But then it goes a step further, encouraging the decriminalization of all drugs and the creation of regulated markets of cannabis — a stance that even the previous Latin American Initiative on Drugs and Democracy, chaired by Brazilian former president and one of the signatories to this document, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, stopped short of endorsing.

The message is both a salvo across the bow to the U.S. and UN, and a message of support to local governments who wish to try alternative policies that break away from the UN and U.S. position of “zero tolerance.”

“The idea of shared responsibility has too often become a straitjacket that inhibits policy development and experimentation,” the document reads. “The UN (through the International Narcotics Control Board), and in particular the U.S. (notably through its ‘certification’ process) have worked strenuously over the last 50 years to ensure that all countries adopt the same rigid approach to drug policy–the same laws, and the same tough approach on their enforcement.”

This type of language can be put to use by a wide range of politicians and groups, from Latin America to California, when pushing for reform through national or local initiatives, something the commission has not been shy to point out.

But it remains to be seen if any country will heed the commission’s call for reform and experimentation. The Mexican government, for example, responded to the commission’s invitation for debate through a tepid press release that declared the government was “open to integral and global debate on regulation of drugs,” including measures that contemplate decriminalization for drug users. However, the government also made clear the need to “separate the debate about drug legalization from the fight against insecurity” and reiterated its opposition to the legalization of marijuana.

With an even harsher stance, the president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla, and of Guatemala, Alvaro Colom, rejected the idea that legalization of “soft drugs” could help fight organized crime. Colom went even further, saying that he would propose the criminalization of drug use in the security and cooperation conference to take place in Guatemala later this month.

Still, some in Europe have quietly encouraged this policy for years, albeit without challenging the underlying UN framework. Surprisingly enough, it may be within the borders of the U.S. that the biggest rebellion surges, as several referendums to regulate marijuana may get on the ballots for 2012. One is already being scheduled in Colorado, where polling has showed it could actually win.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government maintains its unrelenting opposition to any measure that could potentially make illegal drugs, even marijuana, more available.

The Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has responded (twice) to the report. In particular, the ONDCP has noted the lack of clarity on how drug policy reform could play out in Latin America.

The report is vague on these matters. The 11 recommendations made by the commission do not address the specific problems of drug production, trafficking, and consumption in the Americas. That is reflected in the almost complete lack of references — save for one on the Mexican drug war — to any country in the Latin America.

Worse, there are no recommendations on how to deal with cocaine, the biggest money-maker and financier of organized crime in the region. Heroin and marijuana, on the other hand, seem to take the spotlight, either by references to harm reduction programs that make the substance (or some legal form of it such as methadone) available to drug addicts in Europe, or with the outright call to experiment with regulated marijuana markets.

Even so, many of the general recommendations of the commission do carry some potential application for Latin America: 1) ending the criminalization of drug users; 2) assuming a more tolerant law enforcement approach to small-scale producers and dealers while focusing on organized crime; 3) regulating marijuana markets definitely resonate in places like Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Central America.

On the first two recommendations, a recent TNI/WOLA comparative report on the effect of drug policy in incarceration rates in Latin America, for instance, found that 98 percent of the people imprisoned for drug offences in Colombia were small level dealers, drug mules, or drug users.

An approach like the one proposed by the commission, which could include alternative sentences and decriminalization of drug use (a policy already embraced to some extent in Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Mexico), could prove effective at saving resources and better targeting higher levels of organized crime.

Further protecting drug users from law enforcement and criminal courts could also direct the attention of governments at the larger criminal organizations, while saving resources and protecting human rights.

With regards to the regulation of marijuana markets — perhaps the most daring recommendation in the commission’s portfolio — there has been wide debate on its effect on Latin America. The Rand Corporation provided the best and most credible study so far on how marijuana legalization could reduce profit for the cartels. It argued that the effect of a regulated cannabis market just in California would only chip away an estimated two to four percent from traffickers’ profits from marijuana wholesale in the U.S. However, the report said, if regulation were lax enough to make California an intra-national exporter of marijuana, that drop could rise to 85 percent.

Deciphering the larger question regarding how to reduce drug violence, however, remains more elusive. Discussion of how much organized crime depends on marijuana, for instance, has producing figures that range from 60 percent to 15 percent (Rand’s “exploratory estimates” are on the low side, from 15 percent to 26 percent). And this is without even going into the discussion about what other criminal activities these organizations could use to survive.

Such a gaping hole gives the United States and its allies in the UN an important argument against the commission. That hostile reception will make Latin American leaders think twice before indulging in drug policy reform, and might explain why those seeking U.S. aid, such as Mexico and Central America, have already publicly voiced their criticisms.

But Colombia and Brazil might be more adventurous. Brazil, which under Lula never embraced the drug war rhetoric, seems ever eager to counterweigh the U.S. in the region. And Colombia — already seeing how the aid through U.S.-backed Plan Colombia, once close to $600 million per year, is being significantly scaled down — seems ready to assume its rightful role of arbiter.

On the eve of the report’s release, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos welcomed the commission’s work, before telling an audience of mostly military generals and armed forces personnel that fighting drugs “sometimes seems like riding a stationary bicycle.”

*Daniel Pacheco is a Colombian journalist based in Washington DC. He is a columnist for El Espectador and contributes to other Colombian and U.S. media. You can find his work in El Espectador here.

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