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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 world has watched the crescendoing pushback, coming mostly from Latin America, against the United States-dominated "war on drugs" for the past three years with incredulity as the drug policy debate continues to mark new firsts.‬

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First, in 2009, it was former presidents from Latin America who declared the war on drugs was an outright failure (they were later joined by officials and business leaders from around the globe communicating a similar message).

Then, sitting presidents from across the region began to speak out, urging the US to rethink policies that they say have only contributed to more violence and mayhem in Latin America. This spring they pushed the topic onto the agenda for the summit of the Organization of American States (OAS), which for the first time agreed to study alternative drug policies. And then Uruguay proposed a state-regulated legal marijuana market that would be the first of its kind.

But now, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico – hardly liberal bastions – have taken the matter a step further. The Latin American countries, each threatened by drug violence, sent a clearly worded declaration to the United Nations, inviting member states to undertake a consultation process to come up with more effective drug policy strategies. They urged the UN to “exercise its leadership…. to conduct deep reflection to analyze all available options, including regulatory or market measures, in order to establish a new paradigm,” the declaration states, translated into English by the Guatemala Times here.

For advocates of new drug policies, the past three years have been momentous, but nothing until now, says Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, the director of the global drug policy program at the Open Society Foundations in New York, has had “force of action.”

“There is no more powerful body in terms of laying out a global drug policy regime than the UN,” Ms. Malinowska-Sempruch says. “Any discussion on a regional level or national level is important but does not have implications for the globe. This is actually global.”

Triggering a response

The mandate given to the OAS to study best practices, a review due out in a year, is considered a significant step forward, but the UN joint declaration goes further in that it actually triggers a process that requires a response from the UN and is a global call to action, say experts.

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