International Summit Highlights Contradictions in Drug Policy Debate

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An international drug control summit in Colombia has again placed the contradictions in rapidly changing thinking on drug policy at center stage, as calls for drug users and producers not to be criminalized clashed with plans to increase efforts to tackle drug cultivation. 

The XXXII International Conference on Drug Control in Cartagena, Colombia began with a strong denouncement of the failings of current drug policies by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. In his speech, Santos said the objective of a drug-free world is not realistic, and called for “a new approach” to confront drug trafficking. He said this must result from a “rigorous discussion based on evidence and not biases,” and should be independent of “ideological and political aspirations.”

Santos added farmers and drug addicts should not be treated the same as drug traffickers and organized crime, and questioned how he could imprison someone for growing marijuana when it is legal in several countries and US states.

However, his attempt to break from the current paradigm on combating drugs was only partially reflected in the 103 bilateral and multilateral agreements struck by the delegates, who hailed from over 100 countries. According to Notimex, while some proposals called for an emphasis on prevention and treating addiction and respect for human rights, others contained plans to boost the use of technology and intelligence to penetrate drug cultivation zones and improve interdiction efforts.

Addressing the conference on June 3, head of US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) Gen. John Kelly acknowledged that the United States, with its “insatiable demand for drugs,” is a key part of the problem. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The rhetoric emerging from the conference denouncing the failures of the war on drugs and calling for a more humanistic approach to the issue reflect the changing parameters on the debate on drug control in the Americas.

For several years now, there have been growing calls for a move away from the harsh, prohibitionist drug policies enshrined in the UN drug conventions (and traditionally enforced by the United States). Instead, Latin American governments and human rights groups have lobbied for a preventative health-based approach to drug policy.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

However, some of the proposals reported demonstrate the continuing contradictions in thinking as the region edges towards a new paradigm. The most striking of these comes from the contrast between the comments on crop cultivation by President Santos — who recently banned the aerial spraying of coca crops in Colombia with the herbicide glyphosate — and the plans to boost efforts to tackle drug production at the source; a business as usual measure that persists with a policy that has proved enormously costly and has yielded debatable results.

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