No more drug war in Latin America? Report explores new ways to fight drugs

A new OAS report looks at alternatives to prohibiting the drug trade, including legal market regulation, reform of the UN drug convention, and smarter policing.

Fernando Vergara/AP
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (l.) and OAS chief Jose Miguel Insulza, shake hands at a joint press conference about a regional study on the illicit drug trade, at the Presidential Palace in Bogota, Colombia, Friday. A new report by the Organization of American States on the region's drug problem explores a range of potential pathways for dealing with the illicit drug trade.

In the global fight against drug trafficking, it’s high time countries experiment with “nontraditional” approaches.

That’s the advice given to the United States and Latin America in a sweeping new report by the Organization of American States on the region's drug problem. The 190-page document explores a range of potential pathways for dealing with the illicit drug trade, including legal market regulation, reform of the United Nations drug convention, and smarter policing.

“It clearly acknowledges that the current state of affairs is not acceptable and there is really a need to look forward,” says Kasia Malinowska, director of the Open Society Foundations’ Global Drug Policy Program. “Countries have to decide what level of experimentation is right for them. This is clearly a door opener.”

The report is the fruit of a proposal made last year by leaders of OAS member countries who, frustrated with prohibitionist policies, requested greater analysis of the problem and possible solutions.

It’s also the latest sign that the tide may be slowly turning against the US-led war on drugs.

Two years ago, the Global Commission on Drug Policy – whose members include former presidents of Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia, and a former US secretary of State – challenged the status quo of 40 years of “drug war” by recommending the decriminalization of users and experimenting with legal regulation.

Since then, several leaders in Latin America have come out against a militarized approach to fighting drug production and trafficking. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina has favored decriminalizing drug production, transit, and consumption, while Uruguay’s José Mujica has floated the idea of creating a government-run market for marijuana.

In Mexico, President Enrique Peña Nieto has said he doesn’t believe legalization is the solution, although the growing number of US states that have voted for a legally regulated marijuana market complicate Mexico’s choices. Mexico is believed to supply about half of the marijuana consumed in the US, according to the OAS report, and is a top producer of methamphetamines and heroin.

Latin America suffers the brunt of consequences of the drug war. In Mexico alone, upwards of 70,000 people have died in drug-related violence over the past six years. Drug-related violence has plagued Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador as traffickers have increasingly infiltrated Central America.

The latest report envisions a future in which countries “pursue a path of gradual, evidence-based experimentation and reform.”

“A good outlook would be an acceptance that prohibition has failed, that experimentation with new policy frameworks should be encouraged,” the report notes. “This could involve legalization, harm reduction, investing more in treatment regimes. The precise formula should vary according to the democratic decisions of each country.”

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