Claudia Hoffman
Associate Fellow, International Security

The Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas, published on 17 May by the Organization of American States (OAS), represents an opportunity to rethink the international debate on drugs and organized crime.

Mandated at the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Colombia, the report explores new approaches to the 'war on drugs', amid growing dissatisfaction about its enormous implementation costs and increasing levels of drug-related violence. 

Overall, the report opens up the previously deadlocked debate on the best way to tackle drugs and organized crime. It considers alternatives to a 'war on drugs', sets standards for an evidence-based debate, and generates common understandings about the challenges that, in one way or another, are posed to all countries of the Americas. It will almost certainly impact the upcoming debates at the OAS General Assembly in Antigua, Guatemala in June 2013, and inform the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem.

Analytics and scenarios

The report responds to the myriad of voices and opinions involved in the debate about solving the global drug problem by suggesting a range of policy scenarios for the Americas. For instance, the report takes a determined step away from the widespread view that drug use and addiction are criminal offences that should be punished. Instead the report offers a definition of drug use as a public health issue that requires appropriate treatment and prevention policies. The report also moves away from concentrating on the problems of individual countries, such as predominant consumption in the US and Canada, and instead conveys the intricacies and interdependencies of the drug economy that affect the entire hemisphere. Every country in the Americas is implicated in the solution to reduce drug consumption, trade, and violence. In that, the report creates a common narrative about the spread and impact of drugs for the entire hemisphere that will present a solid basis for future discussions on the subject.

Conclusions drawn about the appropriateness of the different legal and regulatory models currently in effect in the Americas lift the debate to new levels. For instance, the report throws a punch at widespread lengthy prison sentences for drug-related crimes, arguing that the certainty of punishment through effective and trustworthy police, judicial, and corrections services is a much more effective deterrent against crime than the length of a sentence.

Most importantly, the prohibition approach to drugs as the only viable option is challenged. Four scenarios are examined: 'Together' explores the effects of stronger judicial and public safety institutions and improved international cooperation; 'Pathways' focuses on individual alternative approaches focusing on the legalization and regulation of drugs, especially cannabis; 'Resilience' considers strengthening communities against drugs and organized crime through improving public safety, health, education, and employment; and 'Disruption' looks at a negotiated truce between states and organized crime. The scenarios are illustrative, but do not contain recommendations for the best way forward, presumably because a little bit of everything will be required to defeat the problem, along with time and resources.

A long and winding road

Although the Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas marks a watershed in the international debate on drugs and organized crime, coming to a common or even concerted approach to end the drug problem in the Americas will remain difficult. 

The approaches described in the scenario section of the report are as different as the current attitudes within the Americas. Public fears about an increase in the drug trade and violence if policy moves away from a mano dura, or hardline, approach remain high. Such fears create enormous public pressure on politicians. Most recently, Costa Rica’s president Laura Chinchilla Miranda had to abandon a reform-oriented discourse for a hardline approach after her popularity plummeted. Regionally, while Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos Calderón remains hesitant to move forward without international consensus, Mexico actively stood in the way of Bolivia's return to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs after legalizing the traditional use of the coca leaf in the country. And the US and Canada remain adamantly tied to the existing international drug control conventions, limiting potential courses of action, and exerting pressure on Latin American countries to follow suit. At the same time, southern powers Brazil and Venezuela have remained awkwardly silent on issues of reform and even debate.

The Report on the Drug Problem in the Americas presents a milestone in the history of drug policy. But it is not a guarantor of change. The report's impact depends on whether it will be implemented, which is subject to the political realities in the hemisphere. The progress made in the report may fall victim to individual political considerations beyond the problem of drugs and global organized crime.