WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
14 May 2013 | Commentary | News

The Drug Policy Reform Agenda in the Americas

By Coletta Youngers, Senior Fellow

Latin America has emerged at the vanguard of efforts to promote debate on drug policy reform. For decades, Latin American governments largely followed the drug control policies and programs of Washington’s so-called war on drugs.[i]  Yet two parallel trends have resulted in a dramatic change in course: the emergence of left-wing governments that have challenged Washington’s historic  patterns of unilateralism and interventionism and growing frustration with the failure of the prohibitionist drug control model put forward by  the US government.  In recent years, the regional debate on drug policy issues ­– long dormant — has surged as evident in media coverage, renewed interest on the part of academia, the emergence of grassroots initiatives such as the cannabis reform movement, and perhaps most importantly, calls for reconsideration of prevailing drug policies by a range of local and national officials. For the first time, sitting presidents are questioning the underlining premises of the international drug control paradigm and calling for debate on alternative approaches. Their actions have had repercussions internationally, as those presidents have successfully pushed for debate within the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations (UN).

At the national level, numerous countries have implemented or are debating drug policy reforms. Most significantly, two countries have boldly challenged the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Bolivia is the first country to denounce and return to the convention with a reservation, in this case with regards to coca leaf use within its own territory. And the Uruguayan government has proposed creating legal, state-controlled markets for cannabis. Uruguayan officials are carefully watching the regulatory frameworks being put in place in the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington where in November 2012 voters approved cannabis legalization referendums. At the local level, officials such as Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro are forging ahead with innovative harm reduction-oriented programs designed to provide access to health services and treatment to drug users and to reduce crime and violence.

However, the obstacles to reform – at the national, regional and international levels – loom large. Efforts to rewrite drug laws in Argentina and Ecuador, for example, are floundering in the face of opposition from powerful conservative political forces and some religious sectors. More often than not, public opinion continues to support mano dura, or hardline, approaches as a result of popular perceptions and fears that more flexible drug policies will lead to increased drug use and violence. Such fears are fanned by sensationalist or biased media coverage, as well as very real problems of citizen insecurity and violence in the poor neighborhoods where illicit drug use tends to be most prevalent. Regionally, while key Latin American leaders have spoken out in favor of reform, many others have remained silent or wedded to present policy. And internationally, a key group of countries, including the United States and Canada, are vociferously opposed to taking any action outside of the confines of the existing international drug control conventions. 

Yet while drug policy reforms will no doubt advance slowly, major fissures are evident in the international drug control architecture so carefully crafted by the United States and other countries. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in Latin America. After analyzing the regional debate, national level reforms and impediments to those reforms, this report concludes with concrete policy recommendations that should be undertaken to maintain the momentum and advance drug policy debates and reforms in the region

To read the entire brief, please click here.

Photo: Coca leaves, courtesy http://rutapanamericana.blogspot.com.

[i]For information see, Coletta A. Youngers and Eileen Rosin, eds., Drugs and Democracy in Latin America: The Impact of U.S. Policy (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.), 2005.