Nineteen Latin American and Caribbean nations have issued a joint statement acknowledging the need to rethink the global war on drugs and instead focus on “life, peace and development” within the region.
Under the current, punitive approach, the countries said at the Latin American and Caribbean Conference on Drugs over the weekend, “the expected results have not been obtained when combating the world drug problem, leaving in many cases the underlying problems to be solved and exploiting and exacerbating vulnerabilities of our territories and societies.”
The 17-point statement is backed by representatives of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Two of the most vocal countries calling for reform are Colombia and Mexico.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro said the two nations “are the biggest victims of this policy,” likening the drug war to “a genocide.”
Petro and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced the summit late last year.
“What I propose is to have a different and unified voice that defends our society, our future and our history and stops repeating a failed discourse,” Petro said at the closing of the conference, according to translated comments. He argued that it was wrong to look at drug control “as a military problem and not as a health problem in society.”
Latin American nations must speak up “without shame, because we have nothing to hide, because those who have made the mistakes are not really us,” Petro continued. He noted that supply-side enforcement efforts have fueled an arms race between cartels and governments and also led to widespread corruption.
“Every dollar that is dedicated to cutting the supply makes the price grow,” he said. “If the price increases, drug traffickers have more money to buy rifles, to buy armored vehicles, to buy missiles, to buy politicians, to buy senators, to buy generals, to buy judges, to buy presidents.”
Among the reforms called for in the joint statement, nations said it’s crucial to strengthen state institutions and work to reduce demand for drugs, for example through education, prevention, early intervention, treatment, recovery and “related support services.”
“The fundamental thing to face the scourge of drug addiction and violence is to address the causes, with a new criterion, not to think only of coercive measures,” López Obrador, the Mexican president, said at the conference. “We have to put first the criterion that peace is the result of justice. We have to fight first against poverty, against inequality.”
Plants with a tradition of ancestral use, meanwhile, “require their reevaluation for traditional, medical, industrial and scientific uses, with a view to improving the coherence and effective implementation of the [global] treaty system with respect to the control of plants and their processed products,” the joint statement says. But it also recognizes “the need to strengthen the control and oversight mechanisms in countries where diversion of plants of ancestral use occurs.”
Although the joint statement includes some specific ways to move forward, it calls generally for “collective reflection” that “must have a broad, integrated, balanced, systemic and achievable approach, paying special attention to the person, families, communities and society in general, and including those communities affected by violence and crime, with a view to promoting development, protecting health, social inclusion, security and well-being in Latin America and the Caribbean, with a perspective of human rights, gender and sustainable development.”
For example, the countries agreed on the need to break ties between drugs and other criminal enterprises, including illegal firearms sales, human trafficking, migrant smuggling, international organized crime, corruption, money laundering and illegal logging.
Some outside analysts had hoped for bolder efforts to end prohibition and regulate the substances. Colombia’s minister of justice, Néstor Osuna, said he hoped that “we will move to a world without illegal drug economies, with responsible, reasonable regulation of cocaine, heroin, opioids, cannabis,” according to the Latin American Post, but that such steps would be difficult under international law.
At a public hearing in a Senate panel last year, Osuna similarly said that Colombia has been the victim of “a failed war that was designed 50 years ago and, due to absurd prohibitionism, has brought us a lot of blood, armed conflict, mafias and crime.”
Within Colombia, lawmakers advancing a bill to legalize marijuana and are currently engaged in a series of debates—part of a two-year process of enacting the reform. Championing that legislation is Rep. Juan Carlos Losada.
On social media last week, the official cheered Osuna’s comments at the international conference and celebrated what he said was “the support of the national government to advance the regulation of adult-use cannabis.”
Celebramos el respaldo del Gobierno Nacional para avanzar en la regulación del #CannabisDeUsoAdulto.
Este es el primer gran paso para cambiar la lucha fallida contra las drogas.
— Juan Carlos Losada (@JuanKarloslos) September 8, 2023
“This is the first big step to change the failed fight against drugs,” Losada wrote, appending a hashtag that translates to, “It’s Time to Regulate.”
Losada and Sen. María José Pizarro announced the reintroduction of the cannabis legalization bill late last month, emphasizing that while the proposal came up short last legislative session, the stage is set for Colombia to pass legalization this round.
“We started the race to achieve the regularization of cannabis for adult use positively,” Pizarro said in a tweet last month, noting that there are still seven votes to go.
The legislation was previously approved in both chambers last year as part of the two-year process that constitutional amendments must undergo. It then passed the Chamber of Deputies again in May and advanced through a Senate committee. But while it received a majority of the votes on the floor during the last stage of the process, it fell short of the 54-vote threshold it needed for passage, and so lawmakers are starting over again in the new session.
The Chamber of Representatives gave initial approval to the legalization bill last year. The head of the Interior Ministry also spoke in favor of the reform proposal at the time. That vote came shortly after a congressional committee advanced this measure and a separate legalization bill.
Petro has also talked about the prospects of legalizing marijuana in Colombia as one means of reducing the influence of the illicit market. Last year, the president delivered a speech at a meeting of the United Nations (UN), urging member nations to fundamentally change their approaches to drug policy and disband with prohibition.
Mis palabras en la clausura de la Conferencia Latinoamericana sobre Drogas en Cali. https://t.co/IMyXksWQ6P
— Gustavo Petro (@petrogustavo) September 9, 2023
The president also signaled that he’d be interested in exploring the idea of exporting cannabis to other countries where the plant is legal.
In 2020, Colombian legislators introduced a bill that would have regulated coca, the plant that is processed to produce cocaine, in an acknowledgment that the government’s decades-long fight against the drug and its procedures have consistently failed. That legislation cleared a committee, but it was ultimately shelved by the overall conservative legislature.
According to the United Nations Office of Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), Colombia remains a chief exporter of cocaine, despite “drug supply reduction activities in Colombia, such as eradication of coca bush and destruction of laboratories.”
Former Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos has also been critical of the drug war and embraced reform. In an op-ed published before he left office, he criticized the United Nations and U.S. President Richard Nixon for their role in setting a drug war standard that has proven ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.
“It is time we talk about responsible government regulation, look for ways to cut off the drug mafias’ air supply, and tackle the problems of drug use with greater resources for prevention, care and harm reduction with regard to public health and the social fabric,” he said.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), who was part of a delegation that visited Colombia last year, told Marijuana Moment at the time that one theme of his discussions with officials in the country was that the world has “lost the war on drugs.”
In Mexico, meanwhile, top lawmakers have taken steps to craft and debate cannabis reform proposals for the past few years, but they’ve yet to get any piece of legislation across the finish line.
Image element courtesy of Dominic Milton Trott.