Colombia takes the lead on drug-policy reform

Drugs, Insecurity and Failed States

By Virginia Comolli, Research Analyst, IISS

Once again US President Barack Obama has said ‘no’ to legalising drugs, but in a statement to the sixth Summit of the Americas he agreed that a discussion on drug policy was  ‘legitimate’.

The summit took place in the Colombian city of Cartagena on 14–15 April, and included 34 regional heads of state. It followed months of anticipation during which presidents and senior politicians from the countries most affected by drug-related violence had spoken out in favour of a review of the prohibition regime and the end of the ‘war on drugs’ in its current form. The consensus among them was that the existing one-size-fits-all approach structured around strong law-enforcement measures has had many unintended negative consequences, especially in the developing world.

Since pushing the need for a new approach to drugs control at the annual session in Vienna of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in March 2012, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia has become a key spokesperson on drug-policy reform. His country has first-hand experience of the corruption, violence and instability that the drugs trade can bring.

Colombia’s ambassador to London and aide to the president, Mauricio Rodriguez Munera, has been just as vocal as Santos in his calls for a new approach to the drugs trade. In recent interviews he has stressed that while there is no doubt that the war on drugs has failed, a wholly convincing alternative model does not yet exist. Rodriguez has suggested that any new examination of policy should be led by experts and based on facts, and should avoid the high emotion of celebrity-led debates. It should also take into account the needs of those who are suffering as a result of current policy.

This shift of opinion coincides with the launch of the latest Adelphi book Drugs, Insecurity and Failed States: the Problems of Prohibition which provides hard evidence of the impact of prohibition on drug-producing states, such as Colombia and Afghanistan, and transit zones such as Mexico, Central America and West Africa. Nigel Inkster and Virginia Comolli show how the war on drugs has penalised weak states by placing disproportionate focus on disrupting the supply of narcotics while not enough responsibility is being taken by consumer nations. The authors argue in favour of a new paradigm whereby greater efforts and more funding are channelled into development and education, and suggest that public-health programmes, rather than the criminal-justice system, should be the driving force in dealing with narcotics.

This growing impatience with the prohibition system bodes well for the debate. For years politicians have been reluctant to criticise the existing regime for fear of being seen as ‘soft on drugs’ and hence losing votes. Now, serving presidents and ministers are the strongest advocates of drug-policy reform. Little change should be expected on the US side though, especially as the 2012 presidential campaign gains momentum. The take-home message from Cartagena is that Washington may now be more willing to listen to alternatives, and hence it is vital that those proposing reform build their argument based on clear evidence and rigorous research.

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