This article is part of WOLA’s series looking at some of the most significant human rights trends and events of the 2010s.
See the full series here.
For decades, a prohibitionist approach to drug policy has been a key driver of social strife and human rights abuses, globally and in countries throughout the Americas.
Criminalization, incarceration, and repressive enforcement aimed at eradicating drugs and drug use—the so-called “war on drugs”—has proven to be a human rights catastrophe, with the brunt of the harms borne by impoverished and marginalized sectors of society. The United States, one of the chief architects of the global drug control regime, has exported its repressive drug policies and waged aggressive campaigns to suppress illicit drug production in Latin America. Despite the obvious failures of this approach, proposing alternative approaches focused on human rights, health, development and genuine security has been politically difficult, as supporters of the status quo have depicted reform as surrender.
That is why one of the most encouraging trends in the Americas from the past decade is the advance of drug policy reform. Policymakers across the region are increasingly willing to recognize that the “drug war” model doesn’t work, and that it is time to push more humane and effective responses. As Latin America has long suffered the brunt of the violence and corruption stemming from the so-called “drug war,” it is encouraging that this region has played a leading role in calling for alternatives.
Early in the decade, the Obama administration took an overdue step in the right direction with a national drug control strategy that stepped away from the usual “drug war” rhetoric domestically, though it did not make enough progress in the sphere of interdiction and international enforcement efforts and rhetoric. In the region, top elected officials were also increasingly willing to call out the “war on drugs” as a failure. Colombia’s president and Central American leaders called for a rethinking of global drug policies early in the decade, and alternative drug policy approaches became the focus of regional institutions like the Organization of American States.
In another key development, Bolivia withdrew from and successfully re-joined the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs with a reservation upholding the use of the coca leaf, a practice that the Single Convention had sought to abolish. Regional governments and organized civil society movements played crucial roles in expanding the drug policy debate beyond the traditional confines of supply control and demand reduction, culminating in the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs that permanently installed the themes of human rights, health, gender and sustainable development on the UN drug policy agenda.
Latin America continued to play a pioneering role in drug policy reform when in 2013 Uruguay became the first country in the world to approve legislation to regulate non-medical uses of cannabis nationally. In 2018, Canada followed suit. In the meantime, beginning in 2012 with Colorado and Washington, eleven U.S. states and the District of Columbia have approved ballot initiatives or passed laws to regulate access to cannabis for adult use.
Despite these important advances in the past decade, drug policy reforms are still incipient and an enormous task remains to ensure that drug policies uphold human freedom and dignity, rather than trample it. Indeed, even as the rhetoric has shifted away from the “drug war” mantra, policies and their implementation on the ground too often remain mired in the past.
The U.S. government, while putting greater emphasis on addressing drug use and the opioids overdose crisis as a public health issue, has not provided nearly enough funding to do so. Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues the U.S. fixation on crop eradication and interdiction overseas and at the border. In Latin America, this decade saw an increase in mass incarceration for low-level drug offenses across the region, a trend that has had a particularly devastating impact on women. Some countries, like Mexico, ramped up militarized wars against drug trafficking organizations, triggering unprecedented rates of violence and homicides.
The Americas have been at the vanguard of the emerging drug policy reform movement. The breakthroughs recorded in the past decade are significant, but remain limited and fragile. The work of the next decade will be to consolidate and expand these reforms.