LatAm Presidents Call for Drug Reform Ahead of UN Special Session

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Former presidents of Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil have written an open letter denouncing the war on drugs and calling for substantive policy reforms ahead of next month’s momentous meeting of the UN General Assembly to assess the global drug problem. 

The letter was signed by former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003), former Colombian President César Gaviria (1990-1994), and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000). It was published as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on March 11. 

The former presidents called the war on drugs an “unmitigated disaster,” and blamed “outdated drug policies” for “soaring drug-related violence, overstretched criminal justice systems, runaway corruption and mangled democratic institutions.”

The trio also warned that the world is in danger of missing an opportunity to change this approach when the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) convenes in April to discuss the global drug problem.

The presidents say the preliminary negotiations currently being held among 53 member states have been “neither transparent nor inclusive.” They also accuse the member states of drafting a declaration that “does not acknowledge the comprehensive failure of the current drug control system” and “perpetuates the criminalization of producers and consumers.”

InSight Crime Analysis

Leaders from Latin America, which has long suffered the brunt of the violence stemming from the global war on drugs, have been at the forefront of calls for alternatives to punitive global drug policies and the upcoming UN special session to debate drug policy was first proposed by several Latin American nations in 2012.

Since then, a host of countries such as Colombia and Jamaica, as well as several US states, have moved to liberalize restrictive marijuana laws. Uruguay became a global pioneer for drug policy reform in 2013 when it took the unprecedented step of legalizing the production, sale, and use of marijuana. Various countries have taken further measures to tilt the balance of policy targeting drug users towards health and away from punishment, while calls for a less combative approach to drug production are also emerging. Just last week the governor of Guerrero, the southwest Mexican state that has been wracked by violence related to the heroin trade, suggested introducing a pilot program that would regulate the cultivation of opium poppy for medicinal purposes.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

Despite a growing consensus in Latin America that the war on drugs has failed and an apparent softening of the United States‘ hardline stance, the former Latin American presidents are not alone in their skepticism that UNGASS will bring substantive changes to the international drug control regime. On March 14, nearly 200 civil society organizations from around the world expressed similar concerns (pdf) about the “non-inclusive and non-transparent nature of the preparatory process.”

Political challenges present another obstacle to global drug policy reform. There is no universal agreement surrounding counter-narcotics policy, and major countries like China and Russia remaining strongly committed to the punitive model. 

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