Drug-Law Reform Genie Freed From Bottle at Summit of the Americas

Presidents Obama and Juan Manuel Santos at Cartagena.

Presidents Obama and Juan Manuel Santos at Cartagena.

For the second time since assuming office, President Obama met with the hemisphere’s leaders at the sixth presidential summit in Cartagena, Colombia on April 14 and 15. At first glance, the summit’s theme, “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity,” would have been better stated as “Disconnecting the Americas.” The presidents could not come to consensus on a final declaration that had long been in the works in draft form. Brazil’s harsh criticisms of U.S. monetary policy were widely applauded. Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner left the summit early, after the United States refused to go along with a statement endorsing Argentine’s right to the Malvinas Islands, insisting on U.S. neutrality in the dispute between Argentina and Great Britain (where they are known as the Falkland Islands). The biggest tension, however, emerged over Cuba. While the rest of the hemisphere remained remarkably united around the idea that Cuba should participate in the next summit, scheduled for 2015, Canada and the United States remained steadfast in their opposition. (This ticking time bomb may very well derail future hemispheric summits.) To add insult to injury, the United States was deeply embarrassed by serious allegations of U.S. Secret Service agents drinking to excess and cavorting with prostitutes, harking back to the image of Latin America as a U.S. playground (a la Havana 1959).

Yet what was refreshing about the Cartagena meeting was that these differences were aired in public. Though conflict has taken center stage in previous summits, most were highly scripted events that provided more of a photo op than a meaningful forum for debate. This time, debate – and discord – took center stage.

The lasting legacy of the Cartagena summit, however, will likely be the beginning of a serious regional debate on international drug control policies. With the apparently adept leadership of Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, the issue was discussed at a private, closed-door meeting of the presidents – according to press accounts, it was the only issue discussed at that meeting – and Santos later announced that as a result of the presidents’ discussion, the Organization of American States (OAS) was tasked with analyzing the results of present policy and exploring alternative approaches that could prove to be more effective. A topic long considered taboo – the U.S. “war on drugs” – is now being seriously questioned and debate on new strategies – including legal, regulated markets – is officially on the regional agenda.

The significance of this development cannot be underestimated. For years, Washington has used its economic and political muscle to squash any dissenting opinions from Latin American governments. Academics and other experts who proposed alternative policies were ostracized as “legalizers,” even if that is not what they were proposing. The “L” word could not even be mentioned in official circles. In fact, the present debate is not about outright legalization per se but rather legal, regulated markets. Administration officials, nonetheless, continue to misconstrue the issue. At the summit, President Obama said that drug traffickers could “dominate certain countries if they were allowed to operate legally without any constraint.”

Now, Latin American governments have turned the tables, taking on a leadership role in considering alternative policies. Numerous sitting presidents – including Santos, Guatemala’s Otto Pérez Molina, Costa Rica’s Laura Chinchilla and even Mexico’s Felipe Calderon – are lamenting the failure of present policy to stem the flow of illicit drugs or reduce the violence associated with the drug trade. There is also widespread frustration that while Latin American countries are paying a high political, social, and economic cost from both drug trafficking and drug policies themselves, Washington’s approach to the drug issue remains on auto-pilot, with no serious debate evident on Capitol Hill or in the White House.

Guatemala’s president, retired general Otto Pérez Molina, has emerged as the primary promoter of rethinking the drug war and has insisted that all alternative options must be on the table, including legal, regulated markets. On March 24, he hosted a Central American regional summit, “New Routes Against Drug Trafficking.” Though all of the region’s presidents initially accepted the invitation to participate, the presidents of El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras dropped out at the last minute (Honduras sent its Vice President) – no doubt due at least in part to U.S. pressure. Indeed, Pérez Molina’s initiative has brought more U.S. officials to the region than at any moment in recent history, including Vice President Joe Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Under Secretary of State, Maria Otero, and the top drug policy official at the State Department, William Brownfield. Nonetheless, those present at the Guatemala meeting point out that a lively debate took place and it helped ensure that the drug issue was raised at the summit.

While making clear that no change in U.S. policy is in the offing, Washington has reluctantly agreed to participate in a debate. At a press conference with President Santos on April 15, President Obama said: “I think it wouldn’t make sense for us not to examine what works and what doesn’t, and to constantly try to refine and ask ourselves, is there something we can do to prevent violence, to weaken these drug traffickers, to make sure that they’re not peddling this stuff on our kids and they’re not perpetrating violence and corrupting institutions in the region,” hastily adding, “I’m not somebody who believes that legalization is a path to solving this problem.” In a presidential election year, the administration is no doubt going to tread very carefully when it comes to the drug issue.

The United States is no doubt pleased that the OAS was tasked to study the issue. The Secretariat of its Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) is traditionally led by someone appointed by the U.S. government (presently it is former U.S. diplomat, Amb. Paul Simons) and it is widely perceived across the region as a U.S.-driven agency. However, ultimately, CICAD’s agenda and focus is dictated by member states. The burden is now on those member states advocating reform to ensure that the OAS effectively carries out its mandate to explore all alternative policies and to include in the discussion relevant experts and organizations with significant expertise, such as the Pan American Health Organization.

Present international drug control policies are deeply-rooted and change will no doubt come slowly. However, as a result of the Cartagena summit, for the first time a meaningful debate on developing and implementing drug control policies that are more humane and effective is underway. The genie is out and will be very hard to put back in the bottle, as much as U.S. officials might try.

Coletta A. Youngers is the Latin America Regional Associate with the International Drug Policy Consortium and a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).