On Saturday, March 24, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina will host a meeting of the Central American presidents to discuss whether there are alternative approaches that might better address the impact of the illicit drug trade on the isthmus than current policy. While Central American presidents remain divided about Pérez Molina’s recent statements on the need to consider legalizing illicit drugs, they have welcomed the proposal to have a discussion on alternatives to current drug policies. Ideally, the presidents’ meeting will end with a shared commitment to a meaningful, rigorous discussion of alternatives to the current war on drugs. Such a commitment should include concrete proposals for a framework to advance the discussion in a way that includes civil society representatives, experts, and all stakeholders.
At the root of the call for debate is the growing frustration with the failure of U.S.-backed drug control efforts. The U.S.-endorsed approach has not stemmed drug production, trafficking, or consumption, and current policies have generated substantial economic, social, and political costs across the region.
Regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s meeting, the response to Pérez Molina’s call to consider legalization as an option has revealed the widespread discontent that exists in the region—among both government officials and ordinary citizens—with present policies, and the urgently felt need to develop approaches that are both more effective and more humane. The U.S. government, for its part, has made clear its continued opposition to legalization, but has also acknowledged that the topic is a legitimate subject for discussion. The dissatisfaction with the current approach has become so pronounced that the United States can no longer turn its back on the call for a thorough debate. In a March 21 State Department Twitter Q&A on the upcoming Summit of the Americas, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson responded to a question posed by WOLA stating, “We welcome discussion of new approaches to ensure comprehensive solutions to the problem.”
The debate on drug legalization, depenalization, and decriminalization—terms that are often used interchangeably but that represent three distinct approaches—will no doubt be long and complicated. However, as the debate opens up, there are already proposals on the table that could mitigate some of the worst problems caused by drug policies themselves. Among the four options noted here, three fit comfortably within the confines of the current international drug control treaties. The fourth—moving toward legal, regulated markets for cannabis—represents a challenge to the treaties but an inevitable and salutary challenge.
- Decriminalizing drug consumption. Drug use should be treated as a public health—rather than criminal—issue. Ten years ago, Portugal decriminalized the possession of drugs for personal consumption, meaning drug consumers are no longer sent to jail for using or possessing drugs. The results to date are quite positive: injecting drug use has dropped significantly, as has the incidence of deaths from HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, far more problematic drug users are in treatment, and drug-related crime has dropped.
- Reforming harsh and ineffective drug laws. Many countries in the region have drug laws that fail to differentiate between low-, medium-, and high-level drug offenses, violent and non-violent offenses, and the type of drug involved; all are subject to harsh mandatory minimums sentences. Drug laws should be reformed to ensure proportionality in sentencing and alternatives to incarceration for non-violent, low-level offenders. Prisons have become training schools for criminal organizations and gangs. Minor offenders enter prison with no links to organized crime but come out with those connections well established.
- Prioritizing law enforcement strategies that aim to reduce the violence associated with the drug trade. Traditional drug law enforcement tends to increase violence by prompting those involved in the drug trade to defend themselves from enforcement through violence and the threat of violence. But enforcement that targets the most violent actors can help ameliorate the most damaging effects of the drug trade even without affecting the overall scale of the drug market. In the United States, numerous localities have carried out “targeted deterrence” enforcement strategies that have succeeded in reducing levels of violence and improving lives in the communities that have been hit hardest by drugs and the drug war.
- Moving ahead with the creation of legal, regulated markets for cannabis. By far the most widely used illicit drug and the most ubiquitously produced, cannabis poses comparatively smaller risks than many other substances (including legal drugs). A prohibitionist approach to cannabis causes enormous harm to those caught up in the criminal justice system. More tolerant attitudes toward cannabis in many countries, including the United States, suggest that sooner or later, state and local governments will begin the shift toward legal, regulated markets, and thereby reduce some of the proceeds that currently enrich criminal organizations.
As these options make clear, progress in moving away from the drug war paradigm and toward more effective and humane approaches that can take place at various levels and time frames. The presidents’ meeting in Guatemala offers a hopeful new moment in the drug policy debate. It must not fall into the sterile, polarized positions of the past, but open the door to a wide-ranging and thorough consideration of the many promising alternatives to the status quo.