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War on Drugs: There Has to Be a Better Way

This op-ed by Jennifer McCoy and Kristen Sample was published by the Miami Herald.

The main U.S. headlines coming out of the recent Summit of the Americas in Colombia were a sideshow about Secret Service misconduct and the perennially divisive question of Cuba, while President Obama touted the event as an opportunity to help jumpstart U.S. employment by selling more goods to a dynamic Latin America.

Yet the most important story of the Summit was the Latin American demand to open the debate on alternative strategies to the "war on drugs."

The emergence of an increasingly independent and assertive Latin America insisting on a change of direction on Cuba and drugs reflects an important shift in the terms of the relationship between the United States and the rest of the hemisphere. Although the U.S. economy still dwarfs the rest of the hemisphere combined, the region has made important gains.

While estimates put the shrinking U.S. middle class as low as 42 percent, five Latin American countries — Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay and Costa Rica — can boast a middle class above 50 percent. Powerhouse Brazil recently surpassed the United Kingdom as the world's sixth-largest economy, becoming a major investor in the United States as well as a foreign aid donor to Africa.

Over the last three years, no issue has demonstrated the shifting terms of the relationship better than the debate on drug policy. Clamor for "democratization" of the debate and a search for new alternatives stems from the perception that Latin American societies pay a disproportionate price in lost lives, hijacked justice systems, abuses in overcrowded prisons, and displaced small farmers, because of the U.S.-led strategy that has prioritized stemming the supply of drugs over reducing its own demand.

Two recent studies led by former world leaders — the Global Commission on Drugs and the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy — have called for a new approach focusing on drugs as a public health issue rather than a criminal problem. The newly elected Guatemalan president pushed the issue onto the Summit agenda when he startled the United States with his call to consider new approaches, including decriminalization of consumption and regulation of supply, in a desperate attempt to stem the unchecked violence of drug-related organized crime in his own country.

Although the Obama administration has commendably embraced a public-health approach in the United States, it has yet to address the devastating consequences of the prohibitionist strategy on Latin American societies.

A recent policy dialogue of political and social leaders from the United States and the Andean countries, which include the primary cocaine-producing countries of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, sponsored by International IDEA and the Carter Center, debated issues dividing the countries, including drug policy.

On drug policy, this group of influential citizens from six countries recommended that their governments:

  • Lead open, public debate on alternative drug policies, including both governments and non-governmental groups to evaluate progress and identify new strategies. No issue should be considered taboo a priori.
  • Reduce illicit crops by redirecting resources toward integral rural development, through policies adjusted to each local situation.
  • Develop strong education and health policies to prevent the consumption of drugs while improving provision of treatment to problematic users.
  • Seek alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders and consumers, thereby reducing the severe overcrowding in violence-ridden prisons and backlogged judicial systems.
  • Strengthen mechanisms that protect democratic institutions from illicit political financing through drug trafficking. Some Latin American countries - such as Mexico and Brazil - have taken important steps to limit the impact of illicit money on politics by bolstering their public campaign finance system, particularly through free air time for campaigning.

The Colombian president did an admirable job of putting the drug debate on the table at the summit, but follow-through is crucial. With the shortcomings of current drug policy and their dire consequences so evident, civil society organizations and citizen forums throughout the hemisphere must continue to urge their governments to identify effective alternatives.

Kristen Sample is head of the Andean Region, based in Lima, Peru, for International IDEA. Jennifer McCoy is director of the Carter Center's Americas Program in Atlanta.

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