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Will Washington surrender in the War on Drugs?

Crack, meth, cannabis, mandrax smoking. Mitchell's Plain, South Africa, July 2013
(Obinna Anyadike/IRIN)

The news this week that Jamaica is decriminalizing marijuana for personal use is the latest step in a global trend towards rethinking drug policy. For decades the international consensus has focused on criminalization and interdiction, but the approach has not only failed to stem drug production and use, it has also had a devastating impact on communities and individual lives.

[ See IRIN’s In-Depth: War on drugs – Collateral damage ]

Latin America has borne the brunt of a Washington-backed “war on drugs” that has deemed drug production and use solely as a law and order problem rather than as health and social justice issues. The consequence of a militarized approach to prohibition is that “throughout the entire region, in both drug production and trafficking areas, there has been an upsurge of violence, corruption, impunity, erosion of rule of law, and human rights violations,” according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

But change is underway, with some key Latin American countries behind the global push for reform of the international drug policy framework. In the latest edition of the quarterly online magazine Report on the Americas by the think tank the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), two researchers, Coletta Youngers and Adam Schaffer, explore whether Washington – seemingly stuck in its old ways - can still dictate drug policy in the region.

They firstly point out the “disconnect” between domestic US drug policies – glaringly the states-led initiatives on regulating legal cannabis markets – and Washington’s success in “creating an entrenched drug-war bureaucracy in countries across the region” that is resistant to change.

Although Washington has begun to talk about harm reduction policies and alternatives to incarceration, “the US-backed drug war is far from over, and the question of drug policy will remain a key topic in regional policy debates over the coming years. While Washington no longer calls all the shots, it maintains influence over many countries that benefit from US aid and trade, and drug-control efforts remain a central component of its foreign policy agenda for the region,” the two researchers, from the non-profit Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), argue.

According to Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, the “real pressure for change will come domestically, within each country. All policies are local in the end, and people are questioning why we have to be sacrificed on the altar of the war on drugs.”

 The challenges

But change is slow. US drug policy “is about foreign policy, and foreign policy does not get much debate in the US”, he told IRIN. Tree acknowledged Washington’s military presence has declined in the region, with Colombia – once central to the war on drugs – a good example. While military assistance has fallen and economic aid has increased, the US is still wedded to crop eradication programmes that are deeply unpopular. Colombia already has the largest number of displaced people in the world. Each season aerial spraying, which destroys both coca and legal crops, adds yet more farmers to that statistic. 

“These are very remote areas, and not a lot of people are ground truthing what’s going on,” Tree said. ‘’What information does come from those provinces goes to [the capital] Bogota and is massaged in the US embassy there; then on to Washington, and is massaged some more. By the time it gets to the secretary of state it has had its happy face put on it, and it doesn’t really reflect the reality on the ground.”

Reform initiatives also have domestic political battles to win. Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos is part of the group of Latin American leaders pushing for new thinking. But while his national Plan for Territorial Consolidation (PTC) has sought to extend state services into Colombia’s remote and marginalized drug producing regions, a WOLA report pointed out that “soldiers are by far the most commonly seen government representatives”. 

“The reality has been abysmal,” said Tree, arguing that part of the problem has been corruption. “NGO is now a four-letter word,” with some non-government organisations soaking up the money earmarked for development projects, he said in reference to Plan Colombia, the predecessor to PTC. “It’s an accounting nightmare."

The drug policy reform initiative, to be debated at a UN General Assembly Special Session in 2016, has momentum. But, “current policies have been over half a century in the making; they will not be changed overnight, nor will change be uniform, clear, or linear. Change, however, is undoubtedly on the horizon. It is a major challenge that, one way or another, US policymakers will have to face,” Youngers and Schaffer conclude.


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