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.

‪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.‬

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.

“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.

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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