The debate on drug law reform continues to gather momentum in Latin America with another statement from the Colombian President on legalisation. As told by Colombia Reports:
Santos and Nicaraguan writer and former vice-President Sergio Ramirez discussed the possibility of legalizing drugs and the impact on Latin America, during a debate at the literature and arts Hay Festival in the coastal city of Cartagena. "I know that this can't be the opinion of a state or the president of the republic, but I am a normal citizen, so I can [say it]. The solution is decriminalizing drugs. It must be decriminalized," Ramirez was quoted by Colombia's presidential website.
"I am not against this," Santos responded. "And I am saying this as president of the republic. This decision would be acceptable for Colombia if taken by the entire world." "Colombia maybe the country that has suffered most fighting drug trafficking. It has cost us our best leaders, our best journalists, our best judges and our best policemen," Santos added.There is some confusion here (perhaps an issue of translation) between 'decriminalisation' (generally referring to personal possession/use) and 'legalisation' (generally referring to exploring regulated markets) although it is safe to assume, from previous comments made by Santos, that he is talking about the latter*.
In fact Santos is clear in his statements that he supports not only a debate on legalisation but that he would not oppose legal regulation of some drugs - notably marijuana and possibly cocaine - if it was a multilateral initiative. His reluctance to act unilaterally is understandable given not only the international nature of both the trade and the legal framework, but the serious diplomatic and political flak Colombia would risk attracting from the US and others.
He has also said he does not want to lead the debate, but is in effect doing just that with his regular comments on the subject. He is no doubt fully aware of the media impact they have, especially given Colombia's profile and influence, and its unique place in drug war history. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he is making a considered and deliberate effort to push this issue forward on the domestic and international stage.
That he is a sitting head of state makes these comments especially significant. Many former Latin heads of state have made similar statements, not least in last year's Global Commission on Drug Policy. One of his predecessors, Cesar Gaviria, recently wrote the foreword to the Spanish Translation of Transform's 'After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation'.
These comments have served the useful function of creating political space for others, including recently Mexico's President Calderon, and Guatemalan President Molina, to start speaking out too.
Comments from multiple sitting presidents are far harder for other governments to brush aside. Compare the US' cursory dismissal of the Global Commission report with the more diplomatic statements from the US ambassador to Colombia who acknowledged that legalisation was 'on the table' and 'had to be addressed'. Or the comments this week from U.S. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman that she 'respects' the call for a debate despite not supporting legalisation.
Progress then, in taking the debate forward at least. But are we edging towards something more concrete?
In Colombia itself Santos' leadership on this issue ontinues to spark debate, support and opposition, but interestingly may have also prompted the creation of a national steering committee led by former General Secretary of the PDA party Bula Camacho, and former Attorney General Gustavo de Greiff's Office. they are proposing to run; "a vast campaign at the international level at UNASUR, the OAS and the UN....to move from the "timid proposal" made by President Juan Manuel Santos to take concrete steps for the international community to decide on decriminalization [probably meaning legalisation given the context] as a means to counter the scourge of drug trafficking.". This grouping is led by Santos' leftist opponents - but notably they are trying to outflank him as reformer, rather than the more familiar rhetorical drug war posturing in opposing such moves seen elsewhere, including the UK.
It remains to be seen who else gets involved, and with what resources, but getting the issue of legally regulating drugs on the agenda of the organisations Camacho mentions would be a major step forwards. And domestic pressure to speak up at the OAS, UNASUR or CELAC may be exactly what Santos wants.
With the ever growing confidence and assertiveness of the region, building a coalition of Latin American countries on the way to calling for increased policy flexibility at the UN level (that would atleast allow exploration of decriminalisation / rregulation models) really would be that over used phrase - a game changer.
Useful background coverage from Colombia Reports here
*decriminalisation of personal use is less controversial in Latin America - already being in place in a number of Latin American Countries, including Mexico and Colombia - although the Colombian situation is in legal flux. See Drug reform in Latin America