Former Presidents Push for Latin American Consensus on Drugs

Latin American governments are starting to seek alternatives to a U.S.-led war on drugs that has fueled violence and the growth of organized crime while failing to stem rising rates of narcotics abuse and addiction. Instead, policymakers across the region are working to reduce the harm caused by illegal narcotics through measures that emphasize prevention and treatment rather than eradication and incarceration.

Initiatives to reduce harm got a high-profile boost in February 2009 when the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, an OSI-funded effort led by three former presidents, issued a report that called for breaking the taboo that has prevented governments from acknowledging the futility of drug repression policies and exploring more efficient, evidence-based alternatives that respect human rights.

Dubbing the 30-year-old war on drugs "a failure," ex-presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico have recommended that governments in both Latin America and the United States pursue instead a three-pronged policy to "reduce the harm caused by drugs, decrease drug consumption through education, and aggressively combat organized crime."

Several Latin American governments are already moving toward harm reduction policies rather than continue costly prohibitionist policies. "Increasingly, many countries are leaning toward decriminalization as an alternative approach," write Coletta Youngers and John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America, an OSI-supported non-profit that monitors the impact of U.S. drug policy in the region.

In an article in America's Quarterly (also an OSI grantee), they document a regional trend toward measures that treat drug trafficking and abuse as public health and social policy issues rather than law enforcement problems:

  • Argentina's Supreme Court ruled that criminal sanctions for the possession of drugs for personal use were unconstitutional.
  • Mexico enacted a law that decriminalized holding small amounts of marijuana and other drugs while urging the government to provide access to treatment.
  • Ecuador's Ministry of Justice began drafting legislation that would decriminalize consumption. The country's 2008 constitution states that "addictions are a public health problem" and mandates public agencies to develop treatment and prevention programs.
  • Brazil enacted a series of measures beginning in 2002 that partially decriminalize personal use while replacing prison sentences with mandatory treatment and community service.

Such steps could not have happened without the advocacy and expertise of civil society groups that advocate drug policy reform. A key partner and grantee of OSI in this effort is Intercambios, an NGO that studies problems related to drug use.

With the support of OSI, Intercambios in August 2009 gathered more than 650 government representatives and experts for the First Latin American Conference on drug policy.

Panels debated topics ranging from legislative reform and civil society activism to rural development, public health, and the geopolitics of counternarcotics policies. In closing remarks, Intercambios President Graciela Touzé noted the growing consensus around a non-punitive approach to illegal drugs: "Perhaps for the first time we can say that there is a sense of genuine change in the region."

Support for drug policy work in Latin America is jointly funded by the Latin America Program and OSI's Global Drug Policy Program.