Support for the Drug War Falling Among Latin American Young People

As Latin American leaders chart a new course on drug policy many in the region wrestle with their own attitudes on the issue. However, a new poll by Asuntos del Sur reveals that younger generations of Latin Americans are breaking from traditional views and are open to changing the current approach to drug policy.

Asuntos del Sur’s 2012 Study on Drug Policy and Public Opinion consisted of a survey of people between 18-and-34-years-old in six different countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, El Salvador and Mexico). The purpose of the survey was to learn how younger generations of Latin Americans are thinking about drug policies, use, campaigns and alternatives to the current regime. 

One of the main takeaways from the poll was that a new generation of Latin Americans conveys a burning hope for change.

Only three percent of Mexicans polled felt that police intervention is an effective way to reduce use, while in El Salvador that figure rose to 24 percent. In Argentina, 68 percent of respondents believe that drug use should be a public health issue while in La Paz it’s only one out of three. 

Views toward legalization appear to be growing among this new generation. The lowest approval for this policy option takes place in El Salvador, with 23 percent. Meanwhile, respondents in Argentina and Chile voiced strong approval for such a policy, with 80 percent and 79 percent respectively. Seven out of 10 of those polled in both countries said that recreational use is an individual right.

The poll also found a variety of opinions and behaviors. 

In all countries but El Salvador respondents agreed that availability of coca paste, a cheap form of cocaine, had risen. The availability of coca paste, or Paco, has been a significant concern among policymakers in recent years. 

However, there was a fairly broad range of attitudes on cannabis. In Bolivia, 75 percent of cannabis users said they did not feel discriminated against, while in Mexico that number was only 41 percent. Thirty-eight percent of Argentineans said they had used marijuana in the previous 30 days, compared to three percent of Bolivians and seven percent of Salvadorians.

Across the board most respondents expressed low opinions of the effectiveness of government campaigns focused on reducing drug use. Fifty-two percent of Chileans and 46 percent of Mexicans disapproved of these campaigns. Government policies did not fare much better. Fifty-eight percent of Mexicans, 54 percent of Chileans and 55 percent of Argentineans polled were not supportive of current government policies.

To understand public opinion is to understand the future of drug policy. We must listen to what people think and how they are affected by the ideas and policies that are being promoted or implemented. 

The past year has been among the most important ever in term of advancing the drug policy debate in Latin America. Calls for review are taking place in multilateral forums and a high-profile proposal to regulate cannabis has been introduced in Uruguay. 

Despite some hope for reform, the problems necessitating these initiatives persist. Organized crime continues to finance atrocities through profits from the drug- while detentions and incarceration rates, and even drug use, continue to rise. 

These competing trends show we have reason to be optimistic, but not yet satisfied.

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