Thursday, February 02, 2012

Latin America: Crucible for a new approach to drugs?

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 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


Gart Valenc said...

I would like to make a couple of comments, which in no way should be taken as criticisms.

1. I’ve being following the Colombian media on this issue, and have noticed that they do not pay particular attention to the distinction between decriminalisation, depenalisation, regulation and legalisation. I’ve even sent comments to publications such El Espectador, El Tiempo, Semana, among others, calling their attention to this lack of clarity and the effects it may have in moving the discussion on drugs policies forward.

2. President Santos has explicitly included cocaine in the list of drugs he would argue in favour of “legalising”. See for instance:

«[…]I would never legalise very hard drugs like morphine or heroin because in fact they are suicidal drugs. I might consider legalising cocaine if there is a world consensus because this drug has affected us most here in Colombia.»

3. In an interview given in December 2011 to RCN, the main radio network in Colombia, President Santos expounded and clarified his position regarding his leading the debate on drug legalisation. You can hear his interview in Spanish here:… (starts 16min 35seg) In essence, he said that he is not prepared to be the first to “legalise” the drugs market, but he is prepared to lead the debate.

4. I’m not 100% sure about it, but as far as I can tell, the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, urged the US to consider “market alternatives” months before Juan Manuel Santos did it.

5. Gustavo de Greiff was Colombia General Attorney between 1992 and 1995, and played a central role in Colombia drugs policies. See for instance, what Wikipedia says about him

Interestingly, as he makes it clear in one of his twitters @vongreiff he called for the depenalisation of consumption and regulation of production 18 years ago.

Gart Valenc
Twitter: @gartvalenc

Steve Rolles said...

Thanks Gart

re 2 I was aware that he said he 'might' consider cocaine so thought it better to caveat with a 'possibly'.

Calderon has been more ambiguous - he has used teh phrase market alternatives a coulpe of times now> I think we can safely assume that market alternatives fit within our understanding of the legalisation/regulation discourse, but again without anything more specific than these comments reported in the media its hard to make assumptions.

The important thing to take away from these recent events it that a taboo on raising these subjects is crumbling for key public figures. theres some way to go but this is a distict sign of movement at the highest level. Hopefully this debate at least willnow move into some of the key mulitlateral and UN fora.

Gart Valenc said...

I agree fully. I do not know if you have read my blog, but in case you haven't, there I make references to what has been said by Calderón, Morales and Santos on this issue.

Gart Valenc
Twitter: @gartvalenc

Steve Rolles said...

will take a look - thanks

apologies for typos above