Latin America: Seizing the opportunity for drug policy reform

Latin America knows well the costs of failed drug policies, and it has an opportunity to show the way on improving global drug policy, even if UNGASS 2016 disappoints its present expectations.


Many Latin Americans hope that 2016 is when serious drug policy reform will finally be considered on a global scale. The Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS) will take place next year rather than in 2019, as originally scheduled, due to the successful intervention of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.

UNGASS 2016 will be a focal point for updating global drug policy, reviewing the effectiveness and unanticipated consequences of existing policy and for considering the possibility of treaty reform. It follows on important changes in the drug policy debate in the Americas.

Long simmering criticisms of highly militarized and punitive policies focusing on drug supply reduction and interdiction have crystallized in a consensus for change in hemispheric drug policy toward public health and demand reduction approaches as reflected in the 2013 OAS report El Problema de las Drogas en las Americas. Even the United States has signed on as the Obama administration appears to lose interest in playing the world’s toughest cop in the face of state-level reforms and new thinking on drug policy.

So what are the prospects for global drug policy reform in 2016?

Latin Americans are likely to be disappointed in the outcome of UNGASS 2016. Treaty revisions require substantial consensus among the member states, and the international community now profoundly disagrees on global drug policy. Even the most pro-reform regions, advocating harm-reduction policies, suspension of eradication, and legalization of marijuana and perhaps of other drugs, have dissenting countries, such as Brazil and Sweden, which maintain highly moralistic anti-drug policies. Russia, China and much of Asia remain committed to strong suppression measures and the current punitive interpretation of international drug treaties. Calls for reform are likely to fall on deaf ears among these countries.

In Russia, drugs flowing from Afghanistan are perceived as a national security threat, at best an outcome of perceived NATO incompetence in reducing Afghan poppy production and at worst an effort to deliberately poison Russian society. In China, drugs carry the heavy historical baggage of being associated with two wars lost to European powers over poppy. Drug use and addiction remains heavily stigmatized in China and in Asia more widely. Russia and China continue to influence the policies of other countries, not only in their ‘near abroad,’ but increasingly in Africa as well.

Achieving and maintaining consensus on drug policy is difficult because the harmful effects of the drug trade and current drug policies are unevenly distributed and these differences drive citizens and their governments to support different approaches. In Latin America, drug trafficking is associated with high criminal violence, and it is the only region in the world where homicide rates are rising. In Asia, the volumes of drugs produced and trafficked are as high as in Latin America and consumption is likely higher. Yet drug trafficking and organized crime in Asia are as nonviolent as in Western Europe, and homicide rates are low.

Drug policies have highly complex effects, touching on issues of corruption, economic development, social marginalization, public health, and human rights. Tailoring drug policies to local institutional and cultural settings improves their effectiveness, yet there are some consistent lessons that carry across the globe and should inform UNGASS 2016:

Focus on organized crimes middle management

While law enforcement counter-drug strategies should focus on the most violent criminals and militants, the effects of this approach should not be overlooked. Going after top drug kingpins can increase violence by provoking turf wars among subordinates. Directing efforts toward the middle management of criminal organization has a bigger effect on reducing drug violence and weakening organized crime.

De-emphasize mass incarceration

Law enforcement strategies that focus on mass incarceration of users and low-level non-violent pushers do little to suppress drugs. Instead, they turn prisons into recruiting grounds for organized crime and terrorism. Evidence increasingly suggests that swift, certain and fair penalties for drug use do more to suppress problematic behavior than long prison sentences.

Develop alternative livelihoods first

Most efforts to forcibly eradicate illicit drug-related crops such as poppy and coca actually contribute to political unrest and militancy. Eradication measures work best when they are conducted in areas with strong state presence and only after alternative livelihoods are available to rural populations. Latin America has much to learn from Thailand, where poppy production was thoroughly but humanely suppressed.

Treat drug use as a public health problem

Efforts to counter the spread of HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases are undermined by efforts to stigmatize and punish drug users. Public health approaches, such as needle-exchange programs and safe-injection sites, produce far better outcomes as do treatment efforts that address addiction as an illness and prevention efforts that focus on early-age interventions, target anti-social behavior, and emphasize youth confidence-building and resistance to peer pressure. Unfortunately, demand reduction and public health policies remain underfunded.

In light of existing disagreements, revision of existing counter narcotics treaties at UNGASS 2016 is unlikely.

The good news is that a dramatic overhaul is unnecessary since the previously described recommendations can be adopted without treaty revision. Latin American diplomats would do well to ensure that the results of UNGASS 2016 allow flexibility in treaty interpretation and preserve space for drug policy experimentation. Latin American countries should also avoid setting unrealistic goals, such as once again proclaiming that all drug use and drug trade should be eliminated and all organized crime should be crushed within a decade, as was done at UNGASS past.

The overall goal should be to strengthen states as they cope with the costs, harms, and threats posed by drug use and the drug trade, and to do so in ways that increase rather than erode the legitimacy of the state, advance human rights, and strengthen the bonds between states and citizens.

Latin America knows well the costs of failed drug policies, and it has an opportunity to show the way on improving global drug policy, even if UNGASS 2016 disappoints its present expectations.


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