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Detente in the war on drugs?
The Sixth Summit of the Americas began yesterday in Cartegena, Columbia, under the theme—“Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity.” Items on the formal agenda include the status of Cuba in the hemisphere and Argentina’s claims on the Falkland Islands.
The unofficial agenda is likely to embrace the warming of relations between the US and Brazil, but as far as the United States is concerned, it has no plans to engage one of the more contentious matters up for review, the 50-year war on drugs.
The half-century old drug war has increasingly been coming under serious review in surprising ways.
Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos have led a discussion questioning the consequences of the punitive, prohibitionist approach to drug control and the costs it has incurred, both in people and money, over the five decades it has been waged.
In 2009, Mexico’s Congress changed the General Health Law so that it decriminalised the possession of illegal drugs intended for immediate consumption and personal use. A person can carry five grammes of marijuana or 500 milligrammes of cocaine, but cannot do so near schools, police departments or correctional facilities. Synthetic drugs remain illegal and larger quantities of marijuana and cocaine carry heavy prison sentences.
Santos and Mexico’s Felipe Calderon might be expected to weigh in heavily on these discussions. Columbia fought for years to rein in drug-related crime and Cuidad Juárez in Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, has been described as the murder capital of Mexico.
Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, faced with the drug challenges of Vancouver, is likely to be an interested observer of these discussions. A programme of free crack pipe distributions began in Vancouver’s Eastside in January to stem the spread of HIV and Hepatitis B among drug users there.
Debate on the matter is likely to be heated, and US President Barack Obama has already signalled resistance to any initiatives to reduce the criminality of drug use. In the 2011 annual report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the body with responsibility for the war on drugs, Executive Director Yury Fedotov noted: “We also must ensure that supply and demand reduction efforts work together rather than in parallel.
“On the demand side, there is growing recognition that we must draw a line between criminals (drug traffickers) and their victims (drug users), and that treatment for drug use offers a far more effective cure than punishment.” Mexico’s response is a radical example of this type of cultural engagement, and it’s one that’s clearly intended to reserve prison space and resources available for the hardened drug criminals that have defied peacekeeping efforts in that country.
The pro-legalisation lobby at the Sixth Summit of the Americas is fully aware of the robustness of the opposition they are likely to face. In a public position statement published in a Guatemalan newspaper, President Otto Pérez Molina noted: “Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that consumption and production should be legalized but within certain limits and conditions.
“And legalization therefore does not mean liberalization without controls.” It’s unlikely that there will be any resolution coming out of this meeting of the leaders of the Americas approving as radical a move as drug decriminalisation.
But placing the discussion on the agenda and encouraging open debate and radical thinking about the war on drugs may well provoke bolder thinking about more effective real world engagements with the multibillion dollar drug trafficking industry and its deleterious impact on the poorest citizens of the countries where drugs are grown and synthesised, through which they are trafficked and where they are consumed.
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