Guatemala’s Missed Opportunity on Drug Policy Reform

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A report from Guatemala’s National Commission for Drug Policy Reform falls short of making recommendations that would propel the country back to the forefront in the regional push for reform, where it once stood.

The commission — made up of scholars and government officials, including Foreign Minister Carlos Raul Morales — published a preliminary report (pdf) critically analyzing current drug policies that emphasize prohibition and penalization, and recommending new strategies geared towards reducing demand for drugs in the country. 

The report examines the disproportionate penalties for drug crimes compared to other criminal activities that also have a serious impact on society. Under the Law Against Drug Activity established in 1992 (pdf), the minimum penalty for drug trafficking (12 years) is not much less than the minimum sentence for homicide (15 years). Meanwhile, the maximum penalty for drug trafficking (20 years) nearly double the maximum penalty for rape (12 years).

The commission collaborated with the Woodrow Wilson Center to analyze the law’s weaknesses on drug possession. Bucking the regional trend towards decriminalizing personal consumption, drug users in Guatemala still face a minimum of four months in prison for drug possession, even in small quantities. The law gives no set parameters for what counts as personal consumption: judges are given discretion to define what is a “reasonable quantity” on a case-by-case basis. As a result, there can be large discrepancies in sentencing.

Based on these findings, the report suggests new strategies to address the fundamental threat illicit drugs pose to society, namely their impact on public health. In addition to studying the effect of drugs on the homicide rate, the commission suggested investing greater resources in health services to provide better treatment for addicts

Interestingly, the report recommends a way to pay for the new health initiatives: by amending the country’s property seizure law. Currently, the government uses seized assets from drug traffickers to fund security programs that focus on anti-drug operations by the security forces. Under the proposed amendment, a substantial part of the proceeds would go to health services to reduce drug demand.

The commission also calls for new criteria to evaluate Guatemala’s drug policy. Currently, success is primarily measured via drug seizures, and arrests of drug users and traffickers. The report recommends including data on the number of active drug users in the country in order to gauge the health impact of drugs.

InSight Crime Analysis

The commission shows signs of breaking away from the punitive approach to drugs historically favored by the United States and the UN. However, this report is a missed opportunity to advance the regional debate on drug reform — in which Guatemala has been a leading voice.

Without plans for state regulation or at least decriminalization of marijuana, it is hard to consider the report a great leap forward in drug policy reform. However, as a preliminary report, the commission only focused on short-term goals, leaving more permanent solutions to a final version that will be published at the end of the year.

The tepid approach stands in contrast to the commission’s bold beginnings. After taking office in January 2012, Guatemalan President Otto Perez publicly announced his support for legalizing drugs as a way to combat violence in the region. Months later, Perez joined former Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in calling on the United Nations for a debate on global drug policy reform.

Guatemala hosted a meeting of OAS states in September 2014 to build a regional consensus on drug policy reform leading up to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem in 2016.

Notably, Perez took aim at the United States during the meeting, saying, “Current drug policies are not responding to the interests and needs of our country, but rather to the interests of another. They [United States] are fighting for prohibition and against personal consumption.”

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

The push for international drug policy reform is not confined to Latin America. The 2014 Global Commission on Drug Policy report (pdf) calls for the world-wide end to criminalization of personal drug consumption. Even US President Barack Obama said the United States has “addressed unfair sentencing disparities and provided alternatives to incarceration for non-violent substance-involved offenders,” in the 2014 White House National Drug Control Strategy report (pdf). 

This represents a new paradigm in the discussion of international drug policy, in which proposals based on public health are the norm. Although the new rhetoric has not yet been translated into significant legislative reform, breaking the taboo on debating drug legalization has been a significant step for those who support alternative approaches to drug policy. 

So, over all, this is a step forward, but will the commission take another in calling for drug legalization? The final report will be released in December.

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