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Latin American nations push UN to drop zero tolerance on drugs

Former and sitting Latin American presidents have issued calls against the status quo on drug policy, but Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala's petition to the UN could push the drug war debate to a new level.

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“The OAS action is purely advisory,” says Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, and consultant to the OAS review process.

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On the other hand, the joint statement issued to the UN, which followed speeches advocating new strategies by the three heads of states of Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico at the UN’s General Assembly last week, formally requests that a process take place.

“Anyone can make a speech,” says John Walsh, drug policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), “but it’s another thing to formally push for and request this process.”

And it brings the process to the international stage, which could open the way for new policies to be created. “The international conventions have been a constraint on innovation," says Mr. Kleiman, who also co-authored “Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know” and “Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know.” 

'Slow and fraught'

Though the petition has the potential to create real change, it could signify little if any movement in the immediate future. For starters, many UN member states have no interest in changing global drug policy, which will make any debate a “slow and fraught process,” says Mr. Walsh.

The US, for example, has told Latin American countries that while it would be open to talking about the legalization of drugs, it is fully opposed to the idea.

But in reality, many countries have moved forward against prohibition despite what is established under the UN charters. Last year, Bolivia withdrew from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs because the charter fails to recognize the traditional use of the coca leaf, and now awaits to rejoin if the ban is reversed. Uruguay’s proposal to create a legal market falls well outside the bounds of the UN convention, and three US states have referendums to legalize marijuana on the ballot for this November's election.

“Other governments, especially in Latin America, are pushing ahead with or without the UN stamp of approval, or without the US stamp of approval,” says Mr. Walsh. “The idea that countries can move ahead even in face of stalemate at the UN is a reality."

But leaders in Latin America have been clear that a global push, not unilateral action, is what is needed, says Daniel Robelo, a research coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. This is an added element of what makes their call to the UN so significant. "Never before have governments spoken so boldly at the highest levels of international government … to call for a serious and major reform," Mr. Robelo says. "This is the next step in a process that is not quieting down."

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