As national leaders from across the American continent gathered in Colombia´s magnificent colonial port city of Cartagena for the sixth Summit of the Americas (pdf, 500kb) on 14-15 April, they knew that one of the most pressing and controversial hemispheric policy issues was not on the event´s agenda. But it was also clear to them that precisely that issue - drug policy - would be among the hottest ´unofficial´ topics, next to Cuba´s full reintegration into the Inter-American system.
In the end, the summit failed to produce a final joint declaration, mostly due to divisions between the US and Canada, on the one hand, and the Latin American camp on the other over Cuba (which, as on previous occasions, was barred from attending). But the drug policy discussions that were held in public and behind-the-scenes are important.
Never before did the Americas (or the world, for that matter) witness such a bold, high-level exchange of viewpoints on illicit drugs, drug-trafficking and drug-related violence and crime. And never before did a group of Latin American heads of state challenge the prevailing, US-backed drug policy orthodoxy with such solid arguments, political acumen and determination to find alternatives.
President Santos opens space for evidence-based policy on drug trafficking
The summit’s host, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, deserves special credit for this achievement. On several occasions in the past few months, he stated publicly that his government was open to considering drug policy alternatives, highlighting that Colombia is among the world’s countries that has suffered most from drug-trafficking and the violence, crime and governance erosion it causes.
Santos avoided framing his approach through the unhelpful dichotomy of ‘legalization versus prohibition’. Instead, he opened up new space for evidence-based policy innovation. He also lived up to his reputation as a political tactician, tabling the issue at the Summit without putting it on the official agenda.
Other Latin American governments also argue for alternative drug policies
A number of his Latin American counterparts have followed suit, though without displaying quite the same level of political skill.
Otto Pérez Molina, a retired intelligence and military officer who was recently inaugurated as Guatemala’s president, came out advocating for global drug market regulation. Felipe Calderón of Mexico argued that the US has the responsibility to cut demand for illicit drugs and to reduce the criminal profits of drug-trafficking networks that are wreaking havoc in his country and neighbouring Central America. Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla has been even more outspoken, going as far as to openly use the L word (legalization).
No silver bullet for addressing drug trafficking related violence and insecurity
Although the Latin American leaders’ positions broadly point in the same direction, a clear difference separate the Mexican and Central American approaches from Colombia´s stance: the Colombian position is more open-minded and less prone to getting tangled up in the political-ideological polarization that has characterized drug policy debate and practice in past decades.
In effect, the ´legalization versus prohibition´ rhetoric has paralyzed the debate and obstructed positive policy change.
Colombia is possibly also more prepared than some of its Latin American counterparts to acknowledge that drug policy reform is inevitably a highly controversial, difficult and gradual process and that there are no quick fixes or silver bullets.
An alternative strategy integrates drug with other governance and social policies
However, there is another, even more interesting angle to Colombia´s new approach to drug policy. Government officials understand that drug policy reform is paramount in its own right because the current counter-drug strategies are delivering sub-optimal or outright disastrous results.
But they also seem to have grasped that alternative strategies need to be closely linked to other efforts, including:
- resuscitating the state’s legitimate and effective capacity to respond to the pressures of pervasive crime and violence
- revamping national security and justice apparatuses and their governance
- strengthening accountability and citizen-state relations
- and, not least, generating equitable socioeconomic development (pdf, 8mb)
In short, to achieve a reduction of the serious political, social and economic problems caused by drugs, drug-trafficking and drug-related violence, alternative drug policies will need to be accompanied by other, complementary public policy interventions.
Colombia should lead on alternative drug policies, but it needs support
The Cartagena summit has helped set in motion a political process that may take us beyond the legalisation-prohibition divide and open up new space for policy innovation.
After decades of experiencing extreme hardship related to drugs and violence, Colombia is now poised to emerge as a regional leader in reshaping drug policy. But to do this successfully the country needs all the outside support it can get to develop the tools that are needed to carry out this Herculean task.
It is vital that President Barack Obama follows up on his statement in Cartagena, in which he said he wanted to engage in what he termed a ´legitimate debate´ about drug policy alternatives (other than legalization). His administration should put all its weight behind the new task group of the Organization of American States (OAS) which the leaders of the Americas agreed to set up to explore drug policy alternatives.
Keep an eye on the Governance and Development blog for more on Global Drug Policy.