from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Winds of Change in the War on Drugs: An OAS Report That Won’t Gather Dust

May 22, 2013

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It was half a century ago that UK Prime Minister Harold McMillan famously noted the “winds of change” buffeting the British Empire. Old verities were crumbling and Great Britain would need to adapt to a new political reality. Something analogous is happening today in the Western Hemisphere, where Latin American governments are rethinking their participation in Washington’s decades-long war on drugs. The latest evidence is a ground-breaking Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas, released May 17 by the Organization of American States (OAS). For the first time, the multilateral body is calling for a sober reassessment of the prohibition strategies the United States has backed since the Nixon administration.

Most international reports simply gather dust. This one won’t. It offers the basis for a long-overdue conversation among the thirty-five members of the OAS.

Produced at a cost of $2.2 million, the report was commissioned at last year’s contentious Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. As I argued at the time, the April 2012 meeting revealed fissures in hemispheric attitudes. A new generation of Latin leaders was appealing for new approaches to combating the drug trade, ranging from demilitarization to decriminalization to legalization. Among the most outspoken was Otto Perez Molina of gang-ravaged Guatemala, who warned that he might abandon the anti-drug struggle to save his country from violence. But he was hardly alone. A plea for greater flexibility also came from Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, whose country has received much of the $20 billion the United States has spent in hemispheric counterdrug efforts this past decade. Alas, President Obama, facing a November election against Mitt Romney, rebuffed efforts to discuss the range of potential options between current counterdrug policies and full legalization.

The United States will no longer have the luxury of avoiding honest dialogue. In two weeks an OAS assembly convenes in Guatemala to discuss the 400-page report, which OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza presented to Santos last Friday. The document actually has two parts. The first is an “analytical report” describing the scope of drug production, trafficking and consumption in the hemisphere, and the often devastating impact that addiction and drug-related crime and violence can have on the social fabric, economic fortunes, and political stability of OAS member states. The second is a “scenarios report” setting out four possible trajectories for the hemisphere, depending on national drug policy choices and coordination among them.

The strengths of the report are its clear-eyed description of the current hemispheric drug problem and its willingness to set out policy alternatives, without endorsing any particular model. As Santos stated on May 17, “Let it be clear that no one here is defending any position, neither legalization, nor regulation, nor war at any cost.” The document’s objective is to provide “the basis for a long-postponed discussion.” Another intellectual breakthrough is explicit recognition that divergent national circumstances warrant “differentiated approaches,” tailored to local contexts and “individual concerns.” This echoes the finding of a 2011 report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy: Namely, it’s crazy to ask all countries to apply “the same rigid approach to drug policy—the same laws, and the same tough approach to their enforcement,” regardless of context. The report also firmly endorses a “public health” approach to the hemispheric drug problem, calling for a greater focus on treatment rather than incarceration of addicts.

Predictably, media coverage has focusing overwhelmingly on just one possibility the report raises: the decriminalization and legalization of drugs, “starting with cannabis.” That’s a pity, for the document outlines a wide range of legal and regulatory alternatives, based on what is actually going on in OAS member states (as well as in individual U.S. states)—and the costs and benefits associated with these various strategies.

The authors’ most creative decision was to offer four distinct scenarios describing what the hemispheric drug problem might look like in 2025, depending on the choices OAS member states make. They provide these alternative futures as thought experiments, labeling them as follows:

  1. Together”: Under this scenario, OAS members understand the drug problem as a symptom of broader insecurity. They thus work to reform and reinforce state institutions so that governments can “control organized crime and the violence and corruption it generates.”
  2. Pathways”: Believing that prohibition regimes and criminal sanctions are causing more harm than good, OAS states under this scenario experiment with “alternative legal and regulatory regimes, starting with cannabis,” and reallocate resources “from controlling drugs and drug users to preventing and treating problematic use.”
  3. Resilience”: In this scenario, OAS members treat the drug problem as “a manifestation and a magnifier of underlying social and economic dysfunctions that lead to violence and addiction.” Their policy response is to focus on “strengthening communities and improving public safety, health, education and employment through bottom-up programs.”
  4. Disruption”: In this fourth and darkest scenario, producer and transit countries conclude that they are “suffering unbearable and unfair costs” from the war on drugs. In response, they unilaterally defect from hemispheric cooperation, “abandoning the fight” or even “reaching an accommodation” with the cartels.

These possibilities show how divergent understandings of the nature of the drug problem could encourage different responses, creating opportunities but also new policy challenges. The bleak “Disruption” scenario, the authors warn, “alerts us to what could happen if we are incapable in the short run of reaching a shared vision that allows us to join forces to address the problem, while respecting diversity in our approaches to it.” Going forward, the price of hemispheric cooperation on illegal drugs is likely to be greater tolerance —not least from Washington—for national experimentation.

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