WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
6 May 2010 | News

Failed “War on Drugs” Prompts Policy Innovations in Latin America to Safeguard Public Health and Safety

 Videos from the conference can be found here

Today, despite a world-wide drug control treaty system and decades of massive investments to attack drug production and curtail supplies and consumption, illicit drug markets and criminal networks are flourishing, threatening public health and safety. 

The failure of the "war on drugs" is prompting renewed debate and policy innovation in countries across the Americas.

These debates and reforms were showcased today at "Art of the Possible," a conference organized by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Transnational Institute (TNI), and George Washington University.  The conference featured key drug policy officials and noted experts from countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Uruguay.

"The costly effort to curtail drug availability that has defined global drug policy for decades has failed in its own terms, and has generated enormous suffering along the way," said John Walsh, WOLA Senior Associate.

In response, civil society and governments across the hemisphere are increasingly engaged in a search for innovative approaches that can both reduce the harms associated with illicit drugs and reduce the suffering caused by policies meant to control drugs.

"Even as prisons across the Americas are overflowing with small-scale dealers and non-violent offenders, drugs themselves remain readily available and powerful criminal leaders continue to flourish," said Pien Metaal, drug policy expert at TNI.  "The reforms underway in the region aim to focus enforcement against the big trafficker, instead of low-level offenders."

In 2008, Ecuador's new Constitution established that under no circumstance would drug users be criminalized nor their constitutional rights be violated, opening the door to the drug law reform effort now underway.  In August 2009, Mexico enacted a law that distinguishes between consumers, dealers and traffickers.  That same month, the Argentine Supreme Court determined that imposing criminal sanctions for the possession of drugs for personal use is unconstitutional, a ruling that could bring drug consumption into the public health sphere.  Brazilian officials are working on reforms that would advance legislative changes to partially decriminalize possession of drugs for personal use.

"There's a feminization of the penitentiary problem.  Seventy percent of women in jail are there on drug-related charges; that causes many social problems, for example with their children. That's why we are working toward a structural reform that includes legislative changes," said Dr. María Paula Romo, Chair of the Justice Commission of the Ecuadorian National Assembly.  In Ecuador a person charged with a number of drug-related offenses – possession, transport, or traffic – could be sentenced up to 25 years in prison, whereas the maximum sentence for a murder is 16 years.

"To tackle the problem of drug abuse, the most effective strategy is to focus on prevention and treatment," said Graciela Touzé, Director of the Buenos Aires-based civil society organization, Intercambios.  "That urgent task is more successfully done by health institutions than by prisons."

Uruguay has never criminalized the possession of drugs for personal use.  Uruguay's policy is one of most effective, making it a model on how to approach the issue of prevention and treatment from a health's perspective. "Social vulnerability and marginalization are one of the largest risk factors for small-scale drug trafficking and drug abuse," said Milton Romani, Executive Secretary of the National Commission on Drugs of Uruguay.  "The fragmented societies of Latin American and the Caribbean need inclusive drug policies that confront the social causes of the problem." 

For more information contact:
Kristel Mucino, Communications Coordinator, [email protected]; (617) 584-1713.