Home > News and media > Comment and opinion > 2013 > 08 > Latin America leads the way on drug control


Latin America leads the way on drug control

Dr Thomas Grisaffi| is a visiting fellow in the Department of Anthropology.

The past two years mark a watershed in the evolution of global drug policy. Latin American leaders have broken with the US imposed ‘War on Drugs’ and have advanced alternative strategies aimed at reducing the harms associated with drug consumption and trafficking. A growing body of evidence suggests that these alternative approaches may well prove to be more effective at addressing the drug problem in the long term.

In the early 1980s President Ronald Regan described illicit drugs as a ‘threat to national security’ and took the battle to source regions. Over the past thirty years the United States has channeled billions of dollars to Latin American military and police forces to enable them to undertake counter-narcotics operations, including the eradication of illicit crops (including opium poppy, marijuana and coca leaf ), law enforcement, and the interdiction of drug shipments. Supply side enforcements intended to reduce the amount of drugs on US streets, however on this score the strategy has clearly failed. Research indicates that the supply of drugs to the US remains as robust as ever. The fact is that the supply side of the market remains flexible; when illicit crops are eradicated, production moves to a different region; drug traffickers are arrested but they are soon replaced, and when trafficking routes are disrupted, they simply shift elsewhere.

Historically the US has dictated the terms of the ‘War on Drugs’ and has used its political and economic might to crush any debate on alternatives. However, current and former Latin American leaders have recently broken this taboo. The hemisphere’s leaders have expressed dissatisfaction with prohibitionist policies and the militarized supply focused approach, which they argue has fueled violence, crime, corruption and instability throughout the region. 

Latin American leaders argue that any long-term solution has to focus on the structural roots of drug consumption, production and trafficking, such as unemployment, social exclusion, extreme poverty and weak institutions. The critical moment came in April 2012 when, at the Organization of American States (OAS) summit, sitting presidents including Guatemala’s Otto Pérez Molina, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla and Mexico’s Felipe Calderon, questioned the sense of continuing with full-scale prohibition. They declared that all possibilities must be on the table, including the creation of legal, regulated markets for narcotic substances.

There are strong arguments in support of the reformist agenda. One of the key points made by Latin American leaders is that prohibition strengthens criminal organisations by handing them control of a lucrative trade (the UN estimates the global drug trade to be worth some $300bn annually).  The massive profits derived from the drug trade flow untaxed into criminal hands and have been used to equip private militias (often outgunning state enforcement) and to undermine state institutions through corruption. Some leaders including Perez Molina have argued that the best way to crush the drug mafias is by decriminalizing drugs and therefore denying these organizations their main source of revenue.

The drug trade has undoubtedly had a harmful impact on the region but so have the US-designed responses to it. Research conducted by the Washington Office on Latin America and the Transnational Institute illustrates that the drug-war has undermined democratic practices and opened space for the gross violation of human rights. For example, US imposed anti-drug legislation has led to a dramatic increase in sentences for drug related crimes in Latin America, which has contributed to prison overcrowding. Meanwhile the US emphasis on using Latin America’s military forces to fight internal enemies has generated significant harm; in Bolivia the security forces tasked with carrying out coca eradication missions in the early 2000s killed and seriously wounded scores of peasant activists, torched homesteads and incarcerated and tortured hundreds of people. The Andean Information Network reports that in many cases the members of the security forces responsible for these acts were never brought to justice.

While the debate has only recently got underway some Latin American counties have already advanced new and daring initiatives with the aim to control the production and consumption of drugs. In August this year Uruguay’s congress approved a bill that will allow the sale of cannabis through state-controlled dispensaries. Bolivia has led a battle for the decriminalization of coca leaf and has abandoned militarized coca eradication in preference for a more humane community-based coca control strategy. Mexico, Argentina and Brazil (all of which are experiencing rising domestic drug consumption) are investigating decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use and increasing investment in harm reduction programs. Even in the United States grassroots initiatives are challenging the status quo, for example Washington State and Colorado recently voted to legalize the production, distribution and possession of marijuana.

Whether Latin American leaders will be able to forge a new consensus in time for the 2016 UN special session on drug control remains to be seen. It is worth remembering, however, that drug policy has taken many different forms since international control efforts began in 1909, and so there is no reason to assume that the current prohibitionist policies will prevail.

A longer version of this piece appears in South America, Central America and the Caribbean 2014, to be published by Routledge in October 2013.