A Look at the OAS Report on Drug Policy in the Americas

Last Friday, the Organization of American States released a groundbreaking report on the future of drug policy in the Americas. The OAS received the mandate to produce this document at the Summit of the Americas last year in Cartagena, Colombia, where some presidents aired their frustration with the war on drugs and even suggested legalization as an alternative to fight the cartels.  

The document is based on solid premises:

  1. Drug violence is one of the greatest challenges facing the Americas
  2. The current approach is a failure isn’t working
  3. New policy alternatives need to be discussed and implemented
  4. Drug use will remain significant by 2025

These premises might seem pretty obvious, but when it comes to drug policy, stating the obvious hasn’t been the norm for those who believe in the status quo: for example, in 1988 the UN held an event titled “A drug-free world: we can do it” (consumption of marijuana and cocaine has increased by 50 percent since then). Or the latest National Drug Control Strategy, which claims that the greatest accomplishment of the Mérida Initiative with Mexico has been “the mutual fostering of security, protection and prosperity” (never mind the 60,000 people killed in drug violence in six years in Mexico).

The OAS report avoids recounting this fairy tale. It also avoids making recommendations, given the lack of consensus among its authors about where drug policy should be headed in the next 12 years. Instead, the document lays out four different interpretations of the “drug problem” and presents the scenarios of what the response should be. The report also presents the challenges facing each scenario (name in bold):

Together: Under this scenario, the problem is not drug laws but weak institutions. It foresees greater security and intelligence cooperation among nations, more expenditure in the security and judiciary apparatuses and tougher laws dealing with corruption, gun trafficking and money laundering.

Latin American countries indeed suffer from weak institutions. The shortcoming of this scenario is that prohibition actually exacerbates the problem since it inflates the profit margins of the cartels to stratospheric levels, thus increasing their corrupting and violent power. In 2010 all seven Central American countries combined spent nearly $4 billion in their security and judiciary apparatuses (a 60 percent increase in five years). And yet that fell terribly short of the estimated revenues of the Mexican and Colombian cartels which, according to a report from the Justice Department, could reach up to $39 billion a year.

The report foresees another challenge with this approach: a disparity among countries in their institution-building efforts, which would lead to the balloon effect of criminal activities. This is perhaps the main feature of the drug business in the Americas: its high capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. For example, in the early 1990s, as pressure grew on coca growers in Peru they moved to Colombia. Now, after a decade of eradication programs in that nation, they are moving back to Peru. Overall the Andean region continues to produce the same amount of cocaine as it did 20 years ago.

Over the years the common denominator of the war on drugs in Latin America has been the attempt to export the problem to your neighbor. Greater cooperation, harmonization of efforts, and same-pace institution building seems unrealistic.

Pathways: Under this scenario, the problem isn’t drugs but drug prohibition. It portends a growing number of presidents in the region calling for the adoption of a legal market for certain drugs, starting with cannabis.

Indeed, the future is here. Guatemala’s president, Otto Pérez Molina, has already called for the legalization of drugs. Uruguay is considering a bill that would legalize marijuana. And even in the United States, Colorado and Washington have legalized the recreational use of cannabis.

Two challenges come to mind under this scenario. First, the discussion on legalization (or regulation, as some prefer), has focused almost exclusively on marijuana. Indeed, the momentum towards a legal market of cannabis seems unstoppable: a recent poll showed that 52 percent of Americans favor legalizing the drug. Moreover, in a recent interview in Colombia’s El Tiempo, William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, said that legalizing cocaine, heroine, methamphetamine, and synthetic drugs would constitute crossing a “red line” for Washington. Tellingly he didn’t mention marijuana. As Mark Kleinman from UCLA points out, it seems as if the drug warriors in the Obama administration might have decided that “the Battle of Cannabis is lost, and are attempting to fall back to a more defensible position”. However, the problem in the Andean region, Central America, and largely Mexico isn’t marijuana, but cocaine prohibition. And the report, realistically so, foresees tough resistance from public opinion on most countries towards a legalized market for cocaine.

This leads us to the second challenge: some countries will be more enthusiastic in adopting legal frameworks for certain drugs while other will stick to prohibition. Given that narco-traficking is a transnational problem, this would create problems and tensions between governments.

It’s not a secret that the pathway toward legalization will prove a difficult one, especially because of the resistance it faces from public opinion in many Latin American counties. However, only legalization deals with the root of the problem: the black market of drugs that creates enormous profit opportunities for organized crime.

Resilience: Under this scenario, the drug problem is a consequence of a larger social problem related to poor socio-economic conditions at the local level and the lack of jobs and opportunities, especially for the youth. It also focuses on addiction as a health problem and not a criminal one.

The scenario portends countries investing in communities, establishing clinics to treat drug addicts, building sport facilities to dissuade youngsters from joining gangs and implementing “harm reduction” policies. It even envisions some sort of Marshall Plan where countries such as the United States contribute substantial financial resources in community building efforts in Latin America.

This is the most unrealistic scenario. The drug problem in most of Latin America is not abuse but trafficking. Building libraries or basketball courts in poor areas won’t stop youths from joining gangs and engaging in drug running when the incomes they derive from it far exceed those they can earn from legal activities. And good legal jobs are rarely created in areas suffering from violent crime. It’s a vicious circle that is difficult to overcome short of legalization.

This scenario tackles drug abuse from a health perspective, which is positive. But this can also be the case under the legalization scenario.

Disruption: This is perhaps the most politically realistic scenario for the moment. Fed up by the constant failure of prohibition and the little advances in implementing alternatives to the war on drugs, one or a group of countries abandon the fight against international drug trafficking. They adopt a non-interventionist approach to drug smuggling, while focusing their police resources on violent crimes.

Many people speculated that this could be the case of Mexico under its new president Enrique Peña Nieto, although there is little evidence so far that his government is trying to reach accommodation with the cartels. Nor is this necessarily possible nowadays. Back in the 1970s and 80s the PRI governments—to which Peña Nieto belongs—adopted a complicit approach to drug trafficking, basically having the federal government look the other way while drugs were shipped to the North. However, back then drug trafficking was basically a family business conducted by an ex-policeman, Miguel Ángel Felix Gallardo. Today Mexico has up to seven powerful and violent cartels that fight against each other for control of trafficking routes. Even if the Mexican government were to adopt a non-interventionist approach to drug smuggling, that wouldn’t prevent the cartels from engaging in bloody turf wars. Drug violence might decline, since government intervention added volatility to a changing cartel landscape, but it is likely that Mexico would remain a violent country.

Moreover, the report rightly points out that, if a country decides to abandon the fight against drug trafficking, it could become a safe haven for kingpins. Drug money would likely flow into that country’s economy, potentially corrupting institutions and even civil society.

Unfortunately, given Washington’s obstinacy with prohibition, several governments in the region might be tempted to follow this scenario in the near future. They are willing to risk the growing presence of criminal organizations in order to reduce the staggering levels of violence afflicting their countries.

The OAS should be commended for this candid report. It serves the cause of having an open and honest debate on drug policy. It is now up to the leaders of the 34 nations of the Western Hemisphere to discuss which of these scenarios serve their countries better.