Reform Resounds at the UN: Cracks in the Drug Policy Regime

At the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last week, three Latin American presidents spoke out, in varying degrees, against the current prohibitionist drug policy model.  The presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala each spoke about the impacts of the U.S.-led “war on drugs” and urged the need to explore alternatives, although none went so far as to mention legalization.  All three questioned the progress made by the current strategy, hinting that it was time to try something new.

In his speech, President Santos of Colombia, emphasized that any policy must be evidence-based, using scientific methods to determine whether the status quo has been most successful, or if alternatives should be implemented.  Although his speech featured a strong focus on the potential peace agreement between the government and the FARC, Santos continues to advocate for a regional change in drug policy.  In the past Santos has said he cannot be the only president to advocate for changes and seeks partners in reforming current policy.

President of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, (who leaves office on December 1st) was more forceful in his recommendations than ever before, calling on the UN to study new approaches to the drug war.  He spoke about needing to find new “regulatory” approaches to drug policy, while focusing on reducing demand.  Upon his election six years ago, Calderón used the military to fight organized criminal groups, which has resulted in more than 60,000 dead, 20,000 people disappeared and thousands more displaced from their homes.  This change in proposed policy is very welcome, however Mexicans questioned his timing regarding these recommendations considering he is close to ending his term.  It has been clear that the current policy in Mexico has failed—but will the incoming President, Peña Nieto, heed this call for change?

Otto Pérez Molina, President of Guatemala has been a consistent advocate for alternatives to prohibition, even going so far as to recommend the legalization of all drugs the week before the General Assembly.  Although he did not explicitly say legalization in his UN speech, Pérez Molina spoke about the need to “establish an international group of countries that are disposed to reforming global policies on drugs” and would consider “new creative and innovative alternatives.”

While all three leaders focused on exploring alternatives that are less prohibitionist, they also emphasized fighting organized crime—claiming that they will never cede an inch to these groups. This is the difficulty of the UN, on one hand countries seek alternatives, understanding the violence prohibition has caused in their countries, while the other hand tries to re-affirm that they are following the current drug policy of interdiction and eradication.

This is the first time that so many sitting heads of state clearly denounce the current drug policy regime—with all three pointing to the need for alternatives, based on science and evidence that will provide greater impact and progress than prohibition.  Of course, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has already responded.  Executive Director and Russian diplomat, Yury Fedetov, held a press conference last week saying that it was not up to his office to create these changes, since the current drug control system was created by member states and it can only be changed by them.  Even as he attempts to defend the status quo, the cracks are beginning to surface.

P.S. If you are interested in what happened, I suggest watching the videos of the speeches, it is clear that the UN has censured the transcripts.  This is a common practice with controversial topics such as drug policy. Check out the videos linked to this post to see what was really said.