Goodbye to the War On Drugs?

The General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) that is meeting in Guatemala this week to discuss drug policy in the hemisphere is one of the few good things this body, whose record on the Cuban and Venezuelan tragedies is pathetic, has done.

In early 2012, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina stirred things up by calling for an end to the repressive approach, which he pronounced a failure, and for a discussion on alternative solutions, such as decriminalization, something only former presidents and intellectuals had done. Not much later, his Central American colleagues joined him. In South America, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos echoed the challenge and, in Uruguay, José Mujica sent a bill to Congress that would decriminalize marijuana and create a state monopoly for its production and sale.

At the last Summit of the Americas, the Secretary General of the OAS was asked to commission a report on drug policy. The result is the text titled “The Drug Problem in the Americas” and the supporting document that projects various scenarios for the following years. This report is the raison d’être of the General Assembly meeting in Guatemala.

Nothing spectacular will come out of the meeting, but that doesn’t really matter: at long last Latin America and the United States are officially discussing what presidents and governments could only whisper about until recently. Washington, theoretically opposed to anything that resembles decriminalization, has softened its position in practice. So far the federal government has done nothing against legalization in Colorado and Washington following the vote in 2012 (nor is it doing much against the eighteen states where medical marijuana is permitted.) The U.S. has sent to Guatemala not only Secretary John Kerry and the lady in charge of hemispheric affairs at the State Department, but also drug “czar” Gil Kerlikowske. A tacit recognition of the new hemispheric trend that seeks to treat drug use as a public health rather than criminal law issue.

The OAS report, which combines a detailed analysis of drug production and of what the illegal trade represents with an account of the state’s response, doesn’t call for anything explicit. It only implies that a change in the approach to drugs could bring about at least partially the results that have eluded the hemisphere thus far. Its symbolism is more important than its content, in part redundant and inevitably prudent given the conflicting views. It does warn that, if we continue along the current path, the consequences will be grave. Another way of saying that the “war on drugs” that goes back to Nixon has failed.

What the billions of dollars poured into the drug war have achieved is more violence, corruption and institutional weakness, and therefore less democracy under the rule of law. As always happens when the law is divorced from reality, an empire has emerged outside of the legal framework built on powerful incentives and with so much power that it can never be defeated despite the victories the authorities believe they obtain from time to time. All that really happens is that cultivation migrates from one place to another, one route closes and another opens, and one set of consumers is replaced with a different one.

Attempting to take out of the drug issue the violence, the corruption and the threat against democratic institutions by substituting the common sense approach for the repressive, Ramboesque approach that has prevailed for decades, does not amount to encouraging people to take drugs. It simply means recognizing that vice can in the best of cases be contained or reduced, not eliminated, and that a less harmful way of going about it is to adopt some of the measures other countries have already taken.

For those of us who have been calling for an open debate on the end of the repressive approach, the meeting in Guatemala is a good thing—regardless of the outcome.

  • Catalyst