Drug policy reform took center stage this week at a summit of the Americas with unprecedented support from human rights groups.
As several Latin American leaders focused the Organization of American States General Assembly on new possibilities for international drug control, civil society groups raised their voices as well, in favor of drug policies with a greater focus on health and human rights.
Delegates arriving to the summit received a letter from more than 50 organizations working on human rights and drug policy that called on “governments to strengthen their commitments on human rights in regards to drug policies and, accordingly, to discuss and rethink existing initiatives.”
The letter adds, “[P]rohibitionist policies and the war on drugs have intensified violent conflicts in the region, as they have created a huge illegal market controlled by complex criminal organizations.”
Shortly after, Human Rights Watch called on governments in the Americas to remove criminal penalties for personal use of drugs in order to engage problematic drug users in health services and to avoid harming people with criminal records.
A statement from Human Rights Watch, read, “Governments should also take steps to reduce the human rights costs of current drug production and distribution policies… Among the steps should be reforming law enforcement practices and exploring alternatives for legal regulation that would reduce the power of violent criminal groups.”
This was followed by an Avaaz petition that called on members of the Organization of American States “to allow individual countries to experiment with new strategies for curbing drug violence and crime.”
As of this writing, the petition has attracted more than 190,000 supporters.
The summit, under the theme, “A comprehensive policy against the world drug problem in the Americas,” comes after the Organization of American States’ historic review of drug policy, which envisioned alternatives to prohibition, including experiments with legal market regulation or reform of the UN drug conventions.
It is hoped that this report will provide a framework for future international discussions on reform.
In a recent op-ed, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos wrote, “The time has come to discuss new approaches to dealing with the problems of drugs in the Americas. After four decades of a hard-fought ‘war on drugs’ the situation remains—in spite of progress in some areas—terribly and frustratingly stuck, with continued high levels of addiction, incarceration, and violence.”
The urgency of reform has never been clearer. Research from human rights groups and the supporting documents for last month’s drug policy review, documented the terrible consequences of current drug policies, including overcrowded prisons, health crises, and insecurity.
A study by Dejusticia, as part of the Colectivo de Estudios Drogas y Derechos found that penalties in seven Latin American countries have increased 521 percent since 1950. This is driving a catastrophic epidemic of mass incarceration in the region.
In addition, the drug trade creates immense financial rewards for organized criminal groups and drives violence in the region. A report on Colombia noted that activities associated with drug production cost between 4,600 and 7,000 lives each year, or up to 40 percent of the 17,700 homicides recorded in 2010.
The ongoing casualties of existing drug policy remind us how much more there is to do be done. At the same time, the pace of change and the volume of the debate reflect that momentum is clearly moving toward reform.