Reading Between the Lines of the Drug Policy Debate

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After four decades of the monologue on the “war on drugs,” the Americas have opened the door for debate, breaking the taboo against discussing new approaches to dealing with the problem. However, this does not mean there is a consensus regarding the alternatives and even less that legalization or decriminalization are just around the corner.

Rather, it means that governments across the region are willing to have an open debate, either defending the traditional approach, or exploring more effective ways to deal with the issue of the illicit drug trade over the next few decades.

On June 6, foreign ministers of all of the member countries of the Organization of American States (OAS) finished their annual meeting in Guatemala — the 43rd General Assembly — that focused on the drug policy problem. The summit concluded with a declaration in which governments of the region agreed to continue the debate.

[Read the original version of this post, published by Project Syndicate, here]

Although the document does not commit to any changes to the current drug policy, it does incorporate a “new” language to understand the problem and allows the debate to continue, entrusting the Permanent Council to call for a Special Session of the General Assembly — a high-level meeting — to be held no later than 2014.

Country-by-country positions on drug policy in the Americas

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[See also InSight Crime’s complete coverage of drug policy in the Americas]

But is this enough?

It is an error to think that significant changes in drug policy can happen overnight. It was not realistic to expect that as a result of the OAS General Assembly, issues such as legalization or decriminalization would appear on the agenda. From this perspective, the declaration’s value does not come from breaking with the current paradigm, but from promoting a discussion based on scientific knowledge and evidence on a technical and political level. Five years ago, this kind of debate was unimaginable.

It was hardly easy. Prior to the General Assembly, Washington DC saw intense discussion between the OAS member countries over defining the contents of the declaration. Guatemala’s proposal to host an Extraordinary Assembly on drugs in 2014 — to debate the current regional strategy — was particularly thorny. 

Initially, a group of countries were reluctant to consider upgrading the debate from within the OAS to a high-level dialogue between foreign ministers — and even among presidents. This is one reason why the declaration that came out of Guatemala — particularly paragraph 20, which refers to the 2014 Extraordinary Assembly — was a major point of discord from the beginning. Unsurprisingly, the main obstacles that kept the debate from moving forward were bureaucratic inertia and the resistance of hard line countries comfortable with the current policy.

In the midst of discussions over the declaration, the OAS Secretary General delivered a special report to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, one that was commissioned by Latin American countries during last year’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena. For the first time since the beginning of the so-called “war on drugs,” a multilateral institution critically analyzed regional drug policy and considered new approaches such as decriminalization of certain narcotics, especially marijuana. The OAS study proposes four possible scenarios for future drug policy. Fortunately, as former Latin American leaders stated in an open letter, “None of the scenarios call for the status quo.” Without offering explicit recommendations, the OAS report reinforced the idea proposed by Guatemala weeks earlier, regarding the need to continue the debate on more efficient strategies.

[See InSight Crime’s special report on the drug legalization issue during the 2012 OAS Summit in Colombia]

In the end, despite the hedging of some countries, including the United States (see footnote 4 of the declaration) under the leadership of the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry, the General Assembly concluded with a declaration that commits to a Special Session of the General Assembly. As the New York Times reported, “The United States was among the countries that agreed to keep up the dialogue but behind the scenes scoffed at another foreign-minister-level discussion on drugs.”

That is true, but only five years earlier, these countries did not even tolerate the idea of discussing the issue, and shied away from the possibility of an open debate.

The drug policy debate now has a “new” language that will set the tone for future discussions. The declaration recognizes the different needs and realities of each country, and opens the door towards considering new approaches and alternatives. 

Now, the question is how these principles and concepts will be developed in each country. Just as many countries adopted the “war on drugs” dogma in decades past, now they should acknowledge the need for a comprehensive policy based on respect for human rights with the same conviction. For now, as with most things, there is a gap between the speeches that are delivered and the policy which is actually carried out. President Santos, talking about the war on drugs, once stated, “Sometimes we all feel that we have been pedaling on a stationary bicycle. We look out to the right and left, and we still see the same landscape.”

This is the moment to get off the bicycle and determine where we want to start walking to next, taking better directions this time.

*Juan Carlos Garzon is a researcher at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University. He is the author of Mafia & Co.: The Criminal Networks in Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia. A version of this article was originally published by Project Syndicate. Reprinted with permission. 

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