Road to Reform: An Introduction to Decriminalization in Latin America

We here at Points are very excited to present the first installment of guest blogger Shana Harris’ new two-part series on drug decriminalization in Latin America. Shana is a recent graduate from the joint Ph.D. program in Medical Anthropology at the Universities of California at Berkeley and San Francisco.  Her research focuses on a variety of drug-related topics, including pharmaceutical policy, drug treatment, buprenorphine therapy, and gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB) use. Her dissertation, “Out of Harm’s Way: The Politics and Practice of Harm Reduction in Argentina,” examined drug use and the politics of intervention involved in the promotion and practice of harm reduction in Argentina since the mid-1990s.

Less than one month ago, the Sixth Summit of the Americas took place in Cartagena, Colombia.  On April 14 and 15, leaders from across the Caribbean and North, Central America, South America gathered to discuss the various political, economic, and social issues facing the countries of the Western Hemisphere.  What made this summit distinctly different than its predecessors, however, was its explicit attention to drug policy.  This signaled the first time current presidents from across the Western Hemisphere engaged in a serious discussion about alternatives to the current War on Drugs.

Since launching the War on Drugs four decades ago, Latin America has largely followed the anti-drug policy agenda of the United States.  Latin American leaders have generally agreed to take aggressive measures against drug use and trafficking in their individual countries in exchange for aid from the United States.  In recent years, however, Latin American governments have begun to challenge these measures by openly debating the prohibitionist policies that guide the majority of anti-drug efforts in the region. The Summit of the Americas was simply the most recent chapter in this debate. The publication of the 2009 Annual Report of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy first set off this regional debate.  Entitled “Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift,” the report broke the long-standing taboo surrounding the public discussion of drugs in Latin America with its call for drug policy reform.  Led by former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), César Gaviria (Colombia), and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico), the commission recognizes that prohibitionist policies have failed to curb — and have in many ways have exacerbated — drug trafficking and drug use in the region.

Columbian President Juan Manuel Santos

Government officials, civil society organizations, citizen groups, and public intellectuals from across Latin America have increasingly expressed frustration with the current prohibitionist agenda that characterizes Latin American drug policy.  Many argue that the enforcement of such policies has come with too high of a cost; drug abuse, violence, organized crime, and prison populations have increased across Latin America seemingly as a result of such anti-drug campaigns.  In a recent interview, the President of Colombia and host of the recent summit, Juan Manuel Santos, suggested that this frustration was a primary motive for the current policy debate: “[W]e must be very frank: After 40 years of pedaling and pedaling very hard, sometimes you look to your left, you look to your right and you’re almost in the same position. And so you have to ask yourself, are we doing the correct thing?”

One policy alternative in particular has taken center stage in this debate: decriminalization.  Several current and former Latin American leaders support decriminalization — whether of drugs in general or simply of drug possession for personal use — for various reasons.  Some see it as a way to approach drug use from a public health rather than punitive perspective.  Others view it as an alternative to incarceration for drug-related offences, an issue that has led to serious overcrowding in Latin America’s prisons.  More commonly, decriminalization is envisioned as a means of addressing the massive violence and corruption caused by drug trafficking in the region. The recent surge in drug-related violence in Mexico and Central America has drawn a great deal attention both regionally and internationally to these matters.  In Mexico, drug-related violence has caused more than 47,000 deaths since President Felipe Calderón began his military campaign against drug trafficking in 2006.  Violence has also dramatically increased in Central America as more and more Mexican gangs and drug cartels have moved into the area.  The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), for example, documented a sharp rise in homicide rates in Central America since 2007. In fact, the triangle of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, according to UNODC, is home to one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina

Drug-related violence plays a central role in the decriminalization debate.  The issue has taken center stage in the administration of the newly elected President of Guatemala, Otto Pérez Molina.  In January of this year, President Molina internationalized the debate with his proposal to decriminalize the production, transport, and sale of drugs in Guatemala.  This proposal is part of an effort to curb drug-related violence in both his country and Central America more broadly. Molina has stated that Central America is paying too heavy a price in the War on Drugs because of its geographic location between the mass of drug users in the north and drug producers in the south, explaining “our countries are not producers or consumers of drugs…We are in the middle of the sandwich.”  As a result, President Molina has proposed the full decriminalization of drugs, the first president in the history of Latin America to do so while in office. 

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