LatAm Nations Get Ready for UN Special Session on Drug Policy

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For the third time in its history, the United Nations will hold a special session late this month to discuss global drug policy. Several Latin American nations with much at stake are prepared to make a case for rethinking the so-called “war on drugs.”

The special session is scheduled for April 19-21 at UN headquarters in New York, and will include roundtables on issues ranging from implementation of international drug conventions to how to better approach drug use as a health issue. The UN is holding the event partly as the result of lobbying by Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala at the UN General Assembly in 2012.

Many civil society groups have pushed their governments to use the special session as an opportunity to lay the groundwork for future drug reform. While the session is unlikely to result in anything as radical as turning away from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs — which enforced a prohibitionist approach to drug use across the globe — it’s still a chance to change the tone of the debate around drug policy.  

Here are some of the arguments that several Latin American governments are reportedly prepared to make next week.


According to El Tiempo, President Juan Manuel Santos and the Colombian delegation will argue that national governments should be allowed to take a more “flexible” approach to drug policy. That is, governments should be able to “formulate and apply” their own national drug policies based on their own “priorities and needs,” even if some approaches — including a long-debated proposal within Colombia to create “consumption centers” where addicts are free to use — may conflict with international drug conventions. 

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

The Colombia UN delegation is also posed to argue that national drug laws should take a more flexible approach when dealing with low-level drug smugglers, known as “mules,” and drug cultivators. During a weeklong UN summit in Vienna last March, Colombia pushed for including a special debate on banning lifelong imprisonment or execution of drug mules during the April drug summit, but was not successful in getting this on the agenda, according to El Tiempo.

Other sources told El Tiempo that the Colombia UN delegation is also preparing to push the UN to make stronger statements in terms of treating drug use as a health problem. Colombia will also push the UN to take a stronger position on what should be the proper focus of law enforcement efforts — that is, most energy should be directed towards taking down the criminal groups that make real money from the drug trade rather than on consumers. 


President Enrique Peña Nieto has confirmed that he will not attend the special session, which is in some ways unsurprising despite his county’s important role in drug trafficking. Peña Nieto has sought to make economic issues the focus of his government. Mexico’s secretary of state will be going in his place, and has said that Mexico will present a “firm and clear” position to the UN. 

SEE ALSO:  Mexico News and Profiles

Mexico has already moved its drug laws toward a more liberal approach. The country’s Congress is currently debating a medical marijuana bill that, according to one senator who supports it, has a good chance of becoming law in mid-May. There has also been some debate over legalizing opium for medical use in Guerrero state, which has some of the highest concentrations of illicit poppy crops in the country. Meanwhile, other members of Congress have said they hope the Mexico delegation will be aggressive in pushing for a repositioning on global drug policy during April’s summit.


While former President Otto Pérez Molina was a major voice in pushing for international drug law reform, successor Jimmy Morales has shied away from the issue. Morales is a former TV comedian with no previous experience in government, and is widely seen as having won the presidency due to mass discontent over the corruption scandal that forced Pérez Molina to resign his office. Morales will be attending the special session in New York, as well as an additional meeting involving UN officials and the head of Guatemala’s UN-backed anti-impunity commission, the CICIG. It remains to be seen whether Morales will take advantage of the special sessions on drugs to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps and voice displeasure with international drug laws.


Peru President Ollanta Humala will not be in the country’s delegation to the UN special session. The delegation will reportedly present on Peru’s experiences in building alternative drug crop programs, as well as other anti-drug policies. Overall, the Humala administration has consistently sent mixed signals in terms of drug policy, and the country has given little indication that it will be as vocal as Colombia in terms of pushing for reform.


Bolivia’s delegation to the UN special session will be made up of a mix of civil society leaders and anti-drug government officials, reported El Diario. In addition to presenting Bolivia’s alternative position on coca policy, the delegation will speak out against the criminalization inherent in current drug policy, which results in overburdened prisons, one delegate told El Diario. 


After approving the creation of a legal market for marijuana in 2013, Uruguay became one of the most liberal countries in the world in terms of alternative drug policies. The country has previously outlined its position on drug policy for the 2016 UN special session, and its delegation will include prominent drug reform officials such as former Organization of American States (OAS) ambassador Milton Romani Gerner.

Whether they are taking an activist stance or not, it is clear that many Latin American countries have a lot to gain or a lot to lose when it comes to global drug policy.

Consumer nations such as the United States and members of the European Union are coping with the harmful effects associated with drug abuse and increased crime linked to both drug abuse and distribution. However, Latin America nations bear a much greater burden dealing with the wholesale production and international trafficking that feeds the North’s voracious appetite for illegal substances.

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