South America’s Drug Legalisation Debate

Daniel Crump @dannycru

Image © Official U.S. Navy Imagery

The killing of a man at the hands of a DEA agent in Honduras earlier this month was an unwelcome reminder that despite promising economic activity in the wider American region, drug manufacturing and the war designed to end it, are still blotches on the international reputation of America’s north, south and central regions. Despite being eerily reminiscent of so many previous occasions of bloodshed at the hands of the drug industry, this latest episode had a hint of novelty to it. This is partly due to the fact that the US government took the step of officially naming the agent as the sole killer, and at no point attempted to shift the blame onto the Honduran police force as has happened before. This is a first for US led operations in the Central American state.

But mostly, this chapter of the war on drugs happened to occur in the midst of the most serious period of analysis about the current approach to drug enforcement that we have seen in modern times. The involvement of the US agent may have propelled the debate to the higher echelons of international news, but the debate has well and truly already begun, most of all in the region’s fastest growing continent, South America.

One of many sticking points between the South and North at the latest OAS summit in Colombia this year was the drug enforcement debate. Argentina and Brazil, seen by many as the continent’s most influential members, directly opposed Obama’s stubborn reluctance to address the status quo and gave serious consideration to drug legalisation.

Drug related crime in the US is undoubtedly still a major issue and remains one of the biggest causes of premature death with figures exceeding the number of soldiers killed in the Afghan war throughout the same period, threefold.

In South America the problems have been far wider reaching. The region’s ideal case study, Colombia, is a living example of how economic prosperity must inevitably take a back seat to drug related crime. Home to Pablo Escobar and the US’s near sole source of cocaine in the 1980’s, Colombia was ravaged by a civil war between Left-wing guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries. Drug cultivation was the overriding factor that kept large amounts of foreign direct investment from reaching Colombia’s poorest regions. In 2002, an offensive led by new President Alvaro Uribe transformed Colombia’s prospects with hard hitting aggression against drug traffickers and Guerilla terrorists and made the country what it is today, enjoying economic growth four times that of the EU. 

Colombia is the success story that advocates of current drug enforcement policy often use as a retort to drug legalisation. However, the situation there is hardly complete, and with new figures in both Bogota and Washington, even Colombia has joined the growing voice calling for a region wide re-think. President Juan Manuel Santos has shown a willingness to listen what still seems like an unthinkable policy north of the Mexican border. On Friday, Colombia’s Constitutional Court upheld a proposal that anyone caught with personal amounts of marijuana or cocaine will not face jail time.

Elsewhere, Uruguay’s government this month has announced it intends to follow suit and take the necessary steps to legalising personal amounts of cannabis. This week also saw the leaders of South America attend the first ever Latin American Conference on Drug Policy. On the agenda was the decriminalisation of possessing personal amounts of narcotics, and smaller sentences for low level traffickers. Almost all nations were in agreement that current policy is not achieving its goal.

This is no longer mere brainstorming, serious debate has begun as to the particulars of drug legalisation such as whether distribution would be better carried out by the state or the private sector, and how all this may affect the UN’s current drug-control conventions. Indeed, overcoming UN roadblocks is something many Latin Americans already attempt, normally in the name of cultural relativism, with coca farmers in Ecuador continuing a native tradition of farming leaves for recreational use.

Arguments in favour of drug legalisation range from the potential dismantling of the black market, to changing people’s attitudes towards low-level drug traffickers who often find themselves forced into a life of crime, exacerbated by poverty and prison sentences. Of course, the retorts to these arguments are plentiful in themselves, but for possibly the first time ever, both reformists and advocates of the status quo are being allowed the platform in which to debate.

If there is one region of the world that could potentially lead the way in radically altering current drug enforcement policy is it South America. This is the region that collectively created the Bank of the South, an alternative money lender to the IMF, and is home to an Argentine President who currently has the confidence to question British claims to ‘Las Malvinas’. Wider US influence is slowly being chipped away on matters to do with regional deliberation and with the current economic situation facing Obama, it is unlikely that anything close to resembling Plan Colombia will be repeated in the near future.

For too long, South America has suffered from the devastating effects of drug cultivation and trafficking, but drug enforcement law itself has become synonymous with heavy handed US interference and the slow erosion of national sovereignty. The main victims of drug related crime are finally leading the debate about the different available tools with which to combat it. Obama’s acceptance that US consumption is one of the most influential contributing factors to South American suffering is welcome but long overdue. The debate has moved on, and the innovative measures already being taken are certainly a breath of fresh air.


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