Latin America’s Drug Problem: Officials Meet to Share Strategies That Work
By Dialogo September 09, 2013
Governments throughout the Western Hemisphere have begun taking a collaborative new approach to drugs, experimenting with different strategies and questioning the status quo. But one thing hasn’t changed in the age-old debate on how to curb illegal drug use: Easy solutions are elusive, and new ideas often raise more questions than answers.
Earlier this month, officials from Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and the United States grappled with these thorny questions at a panel discussion in Washington titled “The New Approach in the Americas toward the Global Problem of Drugs.”
The Sept. 5 talk was part of the XVII Annual CAF Conference sponsored by the Development Bank of Latin America, the Organization of American States (OAS) and Inter-American Dialogue. It centered largely on the push to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana in nations such as Guatemala and Uruguay, and what that could mean for drug policy and security throughout the Americas.
Nelson Jobim, Brazil’s former defense minister, warned that proponents of marijuana legalization haven’t been clear about the implications of such a seismic policy shift.
For example, he said, legalization would in theory create different tiers of offenders — categories that law enforcement and the justice system would then need to sort out.
“There would be criminal treatment for the traffickers and health treatment for consumers,” Jobim told the packed audience. “But if we legalize marijuana, what do we do with people who use [the drug] but are not addicted to it? What administrative consequences should there be?”
Jobim: Drug legalization complicated on many levels
Jobim said officials would need to untangle a host of other legal questions as well. Who, for example, decides on the amount of drugs an individual may consume for personal use — a judge, a doctor, the authorities? And if an addict commits a crime, should his drug use be taken into consideration as an aggravating factor?
Regionally, legalization also creates certain dilemmas, he warned.
“If we say drugs are transnational, we are correct,” Jobim said. But what if one nation legalizes two particular drugs, while a neighboring country legalizes four? And what about the possibility of drug-driven tourism? Would legalized drugs be considered a commodity?
“How will we handle drugs moving between countries? How do we tax this?” asked Jobim, who said the key to resolving such questions is to have an honest, open dialogue.
That’s precisely what’s happening, said Luís Fernando Carrera Castro, foreign minister of Guatemala.
“For the first time in the Americas, we’ve established a platform for debate that’s separate from the old ideologies. We need to look at this problem into the future and not be stuck in the past,” said Carrera, adding that outdated laws must be rewritten.
OAS urges open debate on hemispheric drug scourge
Aside from the legalization debate, he explained, governments throughout the Americas are examining drug-fueled violence through a health and humanitarian prism. But he warned that illicit economies adapt quickly to new policies and that no panacea to the drug scourge exists.
“We need to be careful about developing hope,” he said, cautioning that even innovative new policies won’t be “a silver bullet.” But Carrera did praise the OAS for wading into the complex issue and producing “a report that unifies and converges the debates of the past.”
That comprehensive $2 million study, published in May, reflected on alternative approaches to the hemisphere’s drug problem, including legalization — which it said nations should explore in an effort to rein in spiraling violence and some of the world’s highest homicide rates.
“The intensity of the violence associated with drug trafficking — especially in countries affected by the production, transit, and trafficking of illegal drugs — has been the principal factor in driving the concern of senior level officials in becoming more actively engaged in this debate,” OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza wrote in the report’s introduction.
Insulza: Debate on this topic ‘was overdue’
The 400-page review said regional trends “lean toward decriminalization or legalization of the production, sale and use of marijuana. Sooner or later, decisions in this area will need to be taken.” It added, however, that “other voices suggest it is premature to assume that current approaches to the subject have failed.”
Speaking at the CAF panel, Insulza said collaboration is critical to tackling the drug problem, as are holistic strategies.
“This is the only continent where every stage of drug production takes place,” Insulza said — from planting to shipping. Latin America suffers both the health consequences of drugs as well as the violent crime that comes with it.
“The drug problem cannot be handled exclusively by law-enforcement methods,” he said, noting that tactics such as decriminalization, drug courts, rehabilitation, prevention and the social and economic aspects of drug abuse need to be addressed.
Even so, Insulza said he was surprised by the study’s impact. “Half the headlines written about the OAS over the last year have been about the drug report, and most have been positive. That means a debate on this topic was overdue.”
Kerlikowske: ‘We are all very much in this together’
Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said his country strongly supports the OAS study.
“There is no stronger advocate for drug reform policies than the United States,” Kerlikowske said, adding that the U.S. government devotes hundreds of millions of dollars to drug research, prevention and treatment programs. “We know that prevention is far less costly to taxpayers,” he said. “Some of the best methods of drug treatments have been developed in the United States.”
Yet legalization is definitely not the answer, he argued.
“We don’t think that legalizing drugs is going to improve public health, nor is it going to reduce violence and crime,” he said. “People recognize that the cartels have numerous funding streams … involving such things as kidnapping and extortion that are often far greater funding streams than what can be gained from drug trafficking.”
But he stressed that the United States does understand that it is “our shared responsibility to reduce demand.” Progress has been made on that front. “Our appetite for cocaine, just since 2007, is down dramatically — by more than 40 percent,” Kerlikowske said.
“We are all very much in this together. There is no such thing as a production country, as a transit country, or a consuming country,” he concluded. “So looking at how we can view and deal with this problem holistically without the finger-pointing I think is an important step in the right direction.”
No, because some people want to work and there are no jobs. What happens is that, for example, I would be dealing with drugs already if it was up to me, because here you can't find a job.