What Could Happen If Latin America Questions the Utopia of a World without Drugs at the UN?

Source: United Nations

Source: United Nations

The prohibitionist utopia of a “world without drugs” expressed in the Conventions on Narcotic Drugs signed in 19611971, and 1988, is just that: an unreachable utopia. This realization has led to a debate in Latin America over the past five years regarding the need for drug policy reform. Bolivia, Uruguay, Ecuador, and Colombia, among others, have openly questioned the Conventions on Narcotic Drugs, or at least, the consequences of its application.

This context has led to a call for a UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the world drug problem, which will take place in April 2016. It aims to promote an open debate about the results achieved and analyze what governments should change about the psychotropic substance regulatory regime in force.

Coca chewing in Bolivia is a common cultural practice going back hundreds of years. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via Szymon Kochański.

Coca chewing in Bolivia is a common cultural practice going back hundreds of years. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via Szymon Kochański.

Currently the supposed consensus behind the War on Drugs forged by the international community is weaker than ever. Bolivia made the first crack when it denounced the Convention of 1961, arguing that it could not prohibit the chewing of coca leaf given that its Constitution declared the coca plant part of its cultural patrimony in 2009. That same year Bolivia accepted the terms of the treaty but reserved the right to regulate its citizens’ chewing.

Then came Uruguay, the first country in Latin America to create a regulated market for marihuana in December 2013: people can cultivate it, buy it in pharmacies, or produce it collectively through cannabis clubs. In March of this year, Ecuador declared that governments should review the conventions in order to reorient not only the role of UN bodies charged with regulating the fulfillment of the conventions, but also to adapt the regulations to national contexts.

The list of “rebellious” acts against the current regulatory regime for drugs ends with two speeches given by the Colombian Minister of Justice, Yesid Reyes, in March and May of this year. He stated that governments need to adopt more intelligent strategies to confront illicit drug economies and the harmful effects of consumption. He likewise contended that they should adopt a new approach in the fight against drugs that would allow the prioritization of policy responses adopting a public health perspective. This, he argued, would create coherent policies that recognize people’s fundamental rights and states’ autonomy.

An Argentine soldier guards a large seizure of cocaine. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via Ministerio de Seguridad Argentina.

An Argentine soldier guards a large seizure of cocaine. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via Ministerio de Seguridad Argentina.

It is no secret that Colombia, despite being the most disciplined student of prohibitionism, has been the country most affected by problems of security, institutional weakness, and human rights violations due to drug trafficking. It has served as fuel for the armed conflict. Colombia thus has the authority to denounce the excesses that can result when, due to international pressure, governments apply the Conventions on Narcotic Drugs.

A wind of change is blowing through Latin America, but even so, there are many reasons to not fall into triumphalism. The cases outlined above show that many disagree with the current regulatory regime for drugs, but this does not mean that governments will make radical decisions at the upcoming UNGASS, particularly given the multiplicity of actors that influence the decisions that come out of this meeting.

For example, one cannot underestimate Russia’s and China’s roles, which today serve as the inheritors of U.S.’s “hard” prohibitionism that it had to abandon due to the legalization of recreational marihuana in Colorado, Washington D.C., Oregon, Alaska, and Washington. Meanwhile many Europeans would rather focus on policies to reduce the negative effects of consumption, without discussing the significant transformations in prohibition, or the problems faced by drug couriers imprisoned in their jails.

U.S. soldiers in a poppy field in Afghanistan, the main ingredient for the production of heroin. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via U.S. Marines.

U.S. soldiers in a poppy field in Afghanistan, the main ingredient for the production of heroin. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via U.S. Marines.

For Mark Galeotti, Russia sees any reform as a Western failure to control the situation in Afghanistan (the principal source of the heroin consumed in Russia) and a veiled attack on its economic interests. Sheldon Zhanglikewise confirms that in China change comes slowly: while consumption increases, the government’s reactions become increasingly disproportionate. No one is going to force a country as powerful as China to change its treatment of psychotropic substance users or to stop using the death penalty for drug trafficking.

The UNGASS could result in a declaration that could on one end defend prohibitionism’s successes and offer lukewarm support of “new approaches.” On the other, it could critically evaluate the results achieved and propose reforms. If the former occurs, Latin America should look for strategies that allow it to have one foot in prohibition and the other in reform. In the case of the latter, Latin America will have won a small battle against the biggest global powers, at least in the design of drug policy.

 

*Luis Felipe is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).