When President Obama spoke at the last Summit of the Americas in 2008, he signaled a shift in the U.S. approach to Latin America. There began his administration’s now-perfunctory description of a new kind of relationship with the region: one based on “partnership,” “engagement,” and “co-responsibility.”
The presidents of the Americas (with some notable exceptions) will gather once again later this month. President Obama’s rhetoric will likely again focus on partnership, engagement, and co-responsibility. He is trying to embed the idea that our futures are linked and that we must face challenges together.
These are the right ideas, and they can revolutionize our relationship with the hemisphere.
But to get from where we are now to a future in which the hemisphere’s leaders seek common solutions to common problems, there is a lot the United States needs to start doing differently. We have to move beyond the partnership and engagement talk and start walking the walk.
And if we’re seeking partnership, then drug policy would be a good place to start.
Drugs are a transnational problem if ever there was one. Drugs cause harm at every stage—production, transit, and consumption—which means they cause harm in almost every country in the hemisphere. But current drug policies are harmful as well. What seem like solutions in one country can wreak havoc on others. If governments fight production or trafficking in one place, it just moves somewhere else.
So how does the region work together to produce public policies that create the greatest good and the least harm?
For decades the United States has dominated the international drug policy arena, encouraging—sometimes forcing—other nations to adopt policies we considered in our best interest, but that may not have been in theirs. We threatened the trade preference status of Andean countries unless they met coca eradication targets. We convinced countries to implement mandatory minimum sentencing laws for petty drug crimes, overcrowding jails with non-violent offenders (laws much like those we are now changing in our own country because they are unjust and unsustainable).
We got Colombia to fumigate hundreds of thousands of hectares of crops, displacing peasant farmers and ironically resulting in the expansion of the land under coca cultivation. We developed an interdiction strategy to clean up south Florida that devastated Mexico by prompting the shift of trafficking routes. In the past five years, there have been close to 50,000 drug-related murders in Mexico. As we turn our focus to drug enforcement in Mexico, trafficking is moving to and devastating Central America.
Creating drug policy based on U.S. self-interest has not worked for Latin America.
Over the past year current and former presidents from Latin America have called for a major reform of international drug policy. Former Presidents Gaviria of Colombia, Zedillo of Mexico, and Cardoso of Brazil have been working together, suggesting new alternatives to the status quo and pushing the hemisphere’s leaders to start a more thoughtful dialogue. At times, the drug policy debate is portrayed in pretty simplistic terms: drug legalizers vs. people who think drugs are bad.
No one who has governed in the Americas has any illusions about the devastation caused by drugs, nor do they think that there is a simple answer to drug problems.
What people want is a real discussion about the full range of drug policies. How are policies impacting each stage of the process? What are the alternatives? What are the best practices that might be shared? Legalization? Decriminalization? If so, then which drugs? And what would be the expected results? What are the costs and alternatives to incarceration? Are enforcement strategies aimed at reducing violence possible? Can it be done in a transnational fashion?
Colombian President Santos has highlighted the need for an international debate on drug policy, and Guatemalan President Perez Molina has pushed to have drug policy on the agenda for the Summit.
We need to have a conversation that puts all of the options on the table. Let’s have a talk based on evidence—what works, what doesn’t—and be honest about the harm created by drug use and drug control strategies. What are the most effective and humane solutions to the common problem that is drugs?
That’s what the region’s leaders want: an open and honest conversation that results in the crafting of new strategies and new policies. That conversation could be the first real step toward the “partnership” that the region wants—and that the U. S. needs.