Legislative Innovation in Drug Policy
By Martin Jelsma.
This briefing from the Latin American Initiative on Drugs and Democracy and summarizes good practices in legislative reforms around the world, representing steps away from a repressive zero-tolerance model towards a more evidencebased and humane drug policy. The examples provide lessons learned in practice about less punitive approaches and their impact on levels of drug use and drug-related harm to the individual and society.
At the third meeting, in Rio de Janeiro, a report was made public by the Commission, exposing the impressions reached after nearly a year of research and debates. Access the report clicking on the link below:
During the second meeting of the Commission, specialists presented their research on the drug issue. Below are the papers and presentations the Commission used for discussions. Click on their title to acces the spanish version of the files, in pdf format.
Medellín used to be defined in two words: Narcotraffic and violence. There were problems of deep social inequality and a historical social debt. Today Medellín can be defined for: transformation, transparency, confidence, optimism, familiarity, education and culture. Medellín would like to be defined for: inclusion, equality, opportunities and rights. To achieve this goal, Medellín will perform social interventions so that the violence is reduced and opportunities are created. In 1991 Medellín was considered the most violent city in the world with 381 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2007, this rate fell to 26.
The failure of the war on drugs is today practically a conventional knowledge, not only in the United States but also in most parts of the World. It is widely acknowledged that this failure did not happen only in the past or that it keeps happening in the present; but it will still continue in the future. Nowhere is this statement more real than in Latin America, where dissent is exploding continuously in more and more regions and in a faster speed that it can be suppressed.
The traditional discussions about drug policies, which used to happen exclusively among policy makers and experts in the Americas, frequently ended with a common speech about mutual agreement to cooperate towards the decrease of the drug supply in the South, to reduce the demand in the North, to respect the sovereignty and to make sure that the drug issue would receive a very limited priority, and that would remain at big distance from the more crucial bilateral matters. These speeches are still being repeated, but each time they sound hollower.
A complex international drug control system based on repressive policies evolved throughout the XX Century and became enshrined on three United Nations Conventions. These were formulated under a basic and simple paradigm: all drugs included in the conventions schedules I, II and IV can only have medical and research uses. The policies derived from these conventions aim to eliminate all recreational, ritual, experimental or self-medicated consumption of coca, cocaine, opium, heroin, marijuana and many other drugs. The conventions make provisions for the production of controlled drugs for medical and research uses and criminalize all other production. Regarding consumption they are less rigid and allow for its decriminalization although it remains illegal. Countries that are parties to the conventions may then be somewhat flexible in the way they treat illegal drug users but they may not be tolerant with illicit drug producers.
The Colombian policies against drugs have gone through several stages according to the role of Colombia in the business of the illicit drugs and have been marked by the global and North American milestones in this matter. In thirty years, Colombia has implemented a variety of policies and tools and nothing has worked.
A new thought must depart from a new conceptualization. If we follow the logic of supply and demand, of producing, consuming and transit countries; carriers, laundering, interceptors, etc. we follow the same logic that has not worked. Among so many anomalies, among so many questions and worries, wouldn’t it be necessary to check the paradigm that sustains the anti-drug policies? Wouldn’t it be necessary to sit and look in detail, with the best experts and analysts, what is happening? What is working and what is not?
In Latin America, a tendency in the rising of marihuana and cocaine consumption is becoming evident; therefore, closing the cycle in which, the region becomes, apart from export-minded drug producer, a relevant consuming center. The data produced in the United States points to adolescence as the moment in which drug use begins, the youth is when it skyrockets and adulthood when it slows down. The top marks are between 20 and 25 years. Alcohol follows the same pattern, but it maintains for a longer period the high level of use for 50% of the population. Marihuana use begins a lowering curve early, around 20 years; but cocaine presents a longer period of use. Compared statistic data show that the higher curves happen to young people age 21 to 22. The same graphic reflects Chile, Argentina, Brazil and the US.
Three experts on drug policy were consulted to begin discussions on the topic of drug policy, opened at the first meeting of the Commission. See below the articles submitted. To access them in full, click on the title of the texts(in PDF).
Peter Reuter, Maryland University
U.S. drug policy is comprehensive but unbalanced. Compared to other wealthy nations it spends more money on drug control and a large share of that, perhaps as much as 75%, goes toward enforcement, particularly arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning low level drug dealers. About 500,000 persons are locked up for drug offenses on any one day. Policy measures, whether they involve prevention, treatment or enforcement have met with little success. Prices have fallen and the drugs remain as available as ever. The forces for major change in drug policy seem weak.
Martin Jelsma, from Transnational Institute
When speaking of alternative policies, it is easy to fall into the trap of over-simplifying the difference between prohibition and legalization. However, thinking in terms of this dichotomy is of little use when searching for strategies for change. At an abstract level, in the conceptual debate, bringing to the discussion the concept of legalization might be useful for questioning the current system. But legalization is not necessarily the answer, or the solution, for all the problems related to the existence of the illegal drugs economy. Just as extremely repressive methods used to control drugs can have harmful effects, so the absence of certain control measures can also have a negative effect on public health.
Rubem César Fernandes, Viva Rio
Faced with a global issue with multiple ins and outs, we are interested in the Latin American angle. We presume a different kind of experience as to the configuration of the problems, and therefore to the possible solutions. We must highlight the characteristics belonging to the region that are less visible in other contexts. There is nothing here, as in any other area, that does not have universal interest; but the differences and emphases are important, because of the values and difficulties they add to the whole. Therefore, some significant points about the Latin American experience in combating illegal drugs are presented here.