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U.S. Grip on Regional Drug Policy Weakening, Experts Suggest

WASHINGTON, Jun 28 2013 (IPS) - The Western Hemisphere’s approach to countering the use and flow of illegal drugs may soon change radically, as recently published reports by the Organization of American States (OAS) signal a region less willing to be dominated by the United States and anxious to act on a more multilateral basis.

On Thursday here in Washington, OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza presented two reports by his organisation on the issue, endorsing alternatives to the U.S.-led status quo.

The two reports include an analytical assessment of the current situation surrounding illegal drugs in the Americas, and one looks towards potential future scenarios for a coordinated response. The two reports, released in May, were a focus of debate at the OAS General Assembly in Antigua, Guatemala, earlier this month.

While the reports did not lead to any concrete policy shifts by the OAS at the general assembly, some observers see the reports as an indication that changes could be afoot.

“A few years ago the issue was a taboo,” Coletta A. Youngers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group, told IPS. “It was seen as purely U.S.-dominated, and if you would have proposed something like these reports, people would have laughed at you.”

The reports favour the view that the overall drugs issue is a public health, rather than a security, matter. Youngers believes such a stance represents a “very useful tool” for starting a serious discussion on hemispheric drug policy.

“With these reports, we now have a basis from which we can carry forward the debate,” she says. “The question now is how we do that.”

At the general assembly in Antigua, representatives of the 35 OAS member states decided that the organisation would hold an extraordinary session to discuss drug policy in 2014. The United States initially opposed such a session, but in the end accepted the plan, merely adding footnotes to the declaration expressing its concerns.

Still, Youngers believes Washington is “very bothered” by the language of the reports – and by the fact that the rest of the OAS appears to be asserting its own interests at the expense of U.S. regional control.

“After decades of the U.S. being able to dictate policy,” she says, “Latin America is now taking ownership and saying this is an issue which needs to be debated at the regional level by all the states concerned.”


The United States is particularly troubled by the OAS’s forward-looking report, Youngers suggests. That report is critical of the approach long held by the United States, which tackles the drug issue primarily through law enforcement and views drug users as criminals.

The analytical report, too, contains language that runs counter to the prevailing system.

“Decriminalisation of drug use,” the report states in its conclusion, “needs to be considered as a core element in any public health strategy. An addict is a chronically sick person who should not be punished for his or her dependence, but rather treated appropriately.”

It goes on to weigh in specifically on marijuana, seemingly amenable to the possibility of removing it from the region’s list of illegal drugs.

“(I)t would be worthwhile to assess existing signals and trends that lean toward the decriminalisation or legalisation of the production, sale, and use of marijuana,” the report concludes.

The issues of decriminalisation of drug use and marijuana in general remain highly controversial within the United States. Federal laws here continue to maintain that the use of all illicit drugs, including marijuana, is a crime.

In only two states, Washington and Colorado, is the private production and consumption of marijuana legal, and that was only allowed following public referendums late last year that resulted in surprise decisions to legalise.

In Latin America, meanwhile, there is a wide array of opinions on decriminalisation of illegal drugs.

Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, who hosted the recent OAS general assembly, surprised many when he came out in early 2012 in support of legalising all drugs. Prior to being elected, he had stated his opposition to such an approach, but apparently had a change of heart after becoming leader of a country wracked with violence related to the trafficking of illegal drugs.

Pérez referred to the OAS reports as a “triumph”.

Other Latin American states, too, have made significant moves toward the legalisation of marijuana specifically. In Uruguay, for example, personal use is permitted, and the legislature is currently debating possible ways to legalise and regulate both the production and sale of the drug.

Youngers says the OAS reports will allow more “experimentation” among countries in the region in crafting their own drug policies, a change she says would be welcome.

No consensus

Others have suggested that the implications of the reports could be far broader, affecting a global anti-narcotics system which concerns nations beyond the Western Hemisphere.

“We are potentially on the cusp of the collapse of the existing international counter-narcotics regime,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, another think tank here, told IPS. “And it looks like the Latin Americans could be the ones to pull the plug.”

Felbab-Brown notes that there is as yet “no consensus” within the OAS on anti-drugs policy, and says many countries are wary of any further relaxation. For instance, countries with high consumption levels (Brazil and Argentina, for example) are “lukewarm” toward less intensive interdiction policies or any further decriminalisation of controlled substances.

She is critical of the OAS reports for professing an interest in harmonised policy, however, while at the same time endorsing a country-by-country approach.

“The reports express an OAS desire to have its drug policy cake and eat it too,” she says. “What this would likely lead to is a scenario of different countries adopting different policies, generating spill-over problems and complaints from neighbours.”

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