A New Agenda for International Drug Policy
Associate professor, Carleton University
More than a million people have been murdered in Latin America and the Caribbean over the last ten years, many and possibly most of them in fights over drugs, drug turf or drug trafficking routes. Violence, and by implication, drug trafficking, preoccupies the public and has become a priority in the region's policy debates. Now, having trod the bloody path of prohibition and law enforcement for decades, the governments of the region are exploring new avenues. Some are toying with decriminalization and even legalization. In doing so, they join several European countries and various American states.
Standing in the way of this trend toward experimentation, however, are the international arrangements that currently govern drugs policy. For more than 50 years, a global drug regime centred on prohibition has tried to reduce consumption by eliminating production, and by punishing producers, traffickers, and consumers. Success has been elusive, to say the least. Global consumption of illegal drugs is at an all-time high; unregulated consumption of injection-drugs has been, and continues to be, a major vector of HIV and hepatitis; tens of thousands of mostly young men are dying in the trenches of the drug war; and hundreds of thousands more are spending their most productive years behind bars.
Now a movement is under way to modify the current international drug prohibition regime, for instance by reclassifying cannabis as a less dangerous substance, or by formally enshrining harm reduction – like heroin substitution or safe-injection facilities –within existing treaties. A report commissioned by the Organization of American States and launched in May 2013 called for a more flexible approach involving systematic experimentation and suggested that decriminalization and even legalization should be considered, given the disastrous effects of current policies. Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico have decriminalized possession for private consumption of all illegal drugs and, in November 2013, following a vote by the country's senators, Uruguay will become the first country to legalize the commercialization of marijuana.
While the international organizations charged with enforcing the drug conventions have predictably criticized liberalization measures, they would have to change their tune if the legal regime were made more flexible. Resistance, however, is fierce; a number of countries oppose taking any steps toward liberalization, domestically or internationally. Japan, Thailand, Russia and China, as well as Saudi Arabia lead this group, but their position is strongly supported by many other states in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, all regions where many states still threaten and carry out the death penalty to deal with drug traffickers.
In this global debate, the United States, despite the increasing liberalization of its domestic policies towards addiction and cannabis consumption, has sided with the hardliners, and so has Canada. In the face of increasingly broad public – and police – support for a softer policy that would focus less on repression than on non-criminal sanctions, treatment and education, both countries are actively engaged in protecting the current regime and maintaining its rigid emphasis on repression.
Arguably, compared to the glaring hypocrisy of the Obama administration, the Harper government is at least consistent, walking the same rigid line in international circles that it does at home, where it is fighting harm reduction initiatives – such as Vancouver's Insite safe-injection clinic – and, against all evidence and in the face of declining levels of violence, progressively implementing its law and order agenda, with mandatory minimum sentences and increasingly strict guidelines regarding the enforcement of drug prohibition.
More importantly, however, both governments are behaving in an equally callous way. At home, they must answer for their policies and can pay a political price for it. Abroad, they ride free as the horrendous consequences of the current international regime are felt by foreigners to whom they are not accountable. It is these foreigners whose bodies are piling up in the war on drugs across Latin America, and in Iran's and Asia's epidemic of injection drugs. They should be the ones setting the international drug policy agenda.
Decriminalization and legalization are certainly not silver bullets and their long-term consequences are still largely unknown. But given the disastrous failure that is the current international drug regime, it is cruel and counterproductive to actively prevent Latin American countries, and others, from asserting their right to try something else.
The decent thing for the government of Canada to do – and the United States, for that matter – is to abstain from pushing their domestic position on drug policy in hemispheric and international discussions. We should let those who are paying the price call the shots.