WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
10 Apr 2012 | Commentary

The Drug Policy Debate: Putting Everything on the Table

Op-Ed Published by El Tiempo (Colombia)

When the hemisphere’s leaders emerge from their Summit conversations about drug policy, no one should expect them to announce a consensus position. But Cartagena can be the springboard to a sustained, structured, and increasingly specific consideration of a range of promising options.

In 1998, a special session of the UN General Assembly rallied nations toward achieving a “drug-free world.” At the time, Juan Manuel Santos added his name to those of hundreds of other public figures in an open letter calling for reconsideration of the “war on drugs,” arguing that it was doing more harm than good.

Fueled by fear and framed as good versus evil, the drug war has long evaded the basic questions that surround public policy in democracies. But now President Santos and other leaders in Latin America are positioned to play a key role in ensuring that drug policy is subject to the close scrutiny and serious debate that are so urgently needed.

The very fact that drug policy will be on the table when (most of) the hemisphere’s heads of state assemble in Cartagena constitutes a significant breakthrough. If the first step toward overcoming a problem is admitting that it exists, then at least this much is clear: the world does not just have a drugs problem, it also has a major drug policy problem, and Latin America is paying an especially steep price.

The drug policy discussion in Cartagena represents the convergence of two movements: a small but perceptible opening on the part of the United States, and increased independence and assertiveness on the part of Latin American leaders.

Three years ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a blunt assessment of the drug war while en route to Mexico. “Clearly,” she said, “what we’ve been doing has not worked.” Nothing that has occurred since then would warrant a more positive assessment. And now that Latin American leaders – including close U.S. allies and drug war stalwarts – are outspokenly concurring, the United States is in no position to deny the call for fresh debate.

It remains to be seen to what extent the Obama administration is indeed “ready, willing, and able” to engage in genuine debate over alternatives to the drug war status quo. Washington may be more interested in defusing the debate than engaging it. And November’s election results will tell whether even this modest opening will persist.

On the other hand, Latin American leaders appear increasingly determined to ensure that their countries’ drug policy choices respond first and foremost to their countries’ interests and problems – with or without Washington’s approval.

So what can the presidents who will gather in Cartagena hope to accomplish to make this Summit truly exceptional? The drug war itself offers an object lesson in the folly that ensues from false premises and inappropriate goals. If the presidents are careful to begin from sound premises and focus on realistic goals, they can make Cartagena the point of departure for the sustained debate and careful evaluation needed to modernize drug policy in the Americas.

Sound premises:

The quest for a “drug-free world” was a dangerous fantasy. Fortunately, a more realistic set of premises has gained ground. Drugs can and do cause harm and suffering, but so do drug control policies. The task is to minimize both sets of harms. There is not a single “drug problem” – drugs differ, as do the particular challenges they pose; the risks posed by marijuana use, for instance, differ from the risks of cocaine use, which are in turn distinct from those of heroin.

In short, drug production, distribution and consumption are complex social phenomena, occurring in a variety of dynamic local, national, and regional settings. There are no perfect solutions, only better and worse options, with trade-offs and genuine dilemmas all around. So it is reasonable to believe that different policies can achieve far better results, and it is entirely legitimate to demand that the full range of alternatives should be on the table in Cartagena.

Many of the alternatives that merit serious consideration would not require forging a regional consensus and would fit comfortably within the confines of the current international drug control treaties, so individual countries can pursue them now, benefiting from experiences elsewhere. For example, focusing enforcement against violence rather than against drug markets per se, decriminalizing drug possession for personal consumption, and reforming disproportionate drug offense sentencing laws are all ways to reduce the enormous negative consequences of current policies, in Latin America and the United States alike.

Another significant option – moving toward legal, regulated markets for marijuana – would represent a challenge to the treaties, but an inevitable and salutary challenge. Indeed, increased public support for legal marijuana in the United States suggests that, sooner or later, Washington itself will be at odds with the treaties over the classification of marijuana.

Learning lessons from implemented models of regulated marijuana markets could also nourish the longer-term debate over the more difficult issue of finding better ways to control or regulate the cocaine market. With no consensus on the horizon regarding an alternative model for controlling cocaine, Latin American leaders should be sure not to let that question dominate – and polarize – the discussion at Cartagena and beyond. It requires careful consideration, taking into account the legitimate efforts by Bolivia to recognize traditional uses of coca leaf, the increasing health and social problems in the region related to smokable cocaine (basuco, paco, crack), and the fact that the transit of cocaine to U.S. and European markets is the most profitable illegal business for those organized crime groups most responsible for the explosion of violence in Central America and Mexico.

Proper goals:

Consensus on particular drug policy options should not be expected from the Summit. (In fact, even a declaration acknowledging the need for continuing discussion could be more than the United States would be willing to endorse.) But with or without the United States, Latin American leaders can commit to sustaining and deepening the debate within the region. Outlines of plan to do so would be a bonus: the key is recognizing the need for structured, informed, and increasingly specific discussions of a broad range of alternatives.

The formal framework for today’s drug war dates to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The punitive approach to drug policy gathered momentum over decades, and retains enormous inertia – ideologically, geopolitically, and bureaucratically. So the drug war will not be undone and remade in one decisive stroke – it will take time. For the presidents about to gather in Cartagena, there is no time like the present to begin.