This year’s annual General Assembly meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), which brings together the hemisphere’s foreign ministers, marked a milestone in the Latin American drug policy debate. For the first time, the drug policy issue was the primary theme of a hemispheric meeting and, in a closed-door meeting of the foreign ministers, a process was laid out for continuing the discussion, culminating in a Special Session of the General Assembly to be held in 2014. The significance of this meeting should not be underestimated. Drug policy has long been a taboo topic in official Latin American circles, given the traditional U.S. dominance in defining drug policies in the region. As one official noted, “Even two years ago I would not have imagined that we would be having this discussion today.” The General Assembly meeting in Antigua, Guatemala, from June 4 to 6 illustrated that there is growing recognition across the region that present drug control policies are failing and that some countries in particular have paid a very high social, economic and political cost for implementing those policies, hence the need to consider alternative approaches. However, the Antigua meeting also showed a lack of consensus on the way forward.

The declaration agreed to at the end of the meeting, “For a Comprehensive Policy Against the World Drug Problem in the Americas,” calls for countries to initiate a multi-layered process of consultation in a variety of national and regional forums, taking into account the recently-released OAS drug policy studies and the outcomes of this General Assembly meeting[1] and concludes by entrusting the Permanent Council to call for a Special Session to be held no later than 2014. From the declaration’s first draft, the United States, among other countries, opposed the Special Session. U.S. officials, while apparently agreeing to the Special Session in the closed-door meeting of foreign ministers, sought until the bitter end to water down the language (allowing for the Permanent Council to decide whether or not to convene a Special Session, among other caveats), ultimately allowing for the declaration to go forward with a footnote laying out U.S. concerns. (As in the case of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, the OAS operates by consensus.) The process laid out in Antigua ensures that drug policy will remain at the top of the hemispheric agenda and provides greater opportunity for Latin American countries to influence the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs to be held in 2016.

The Guatemalan government—and in particular Foreign Minister Fernando Carrera—played a crucial role in ensuring the outcome of the Antigua meeting. However, it is important to note that the next two major hemispheric meetings will be in places with governments less inclined to put drug policy alternatives on the agenda: The next meeting of the General Assembly will take place in Paraguay in 2014 and the next Summit of the Americas will be in Panama in 2015; both countries have remained firm U.S. allies on drug policy issues.

Another positive outcome of the General Assembly meeting was growing recognition of the importance of the May 2013 OAS report on “The Drug Problem in the Americas” and the complementary scenarios study. In contrast to the tepid if not outright hostile reaction to the reports in the bi-annual CICAD meeting last May, in Antigua numerous government delegations highlighted that these reports provide an important tool for the regional drug policy debate. The OAS report lays out various alternative drug policies that could be considered by member states, including decriminalization of consumption and legal, regulated markets for cannabis. Of particular significance, it calls for giving countries greater flexibility in implementing drug policy and the need for drug law reforms at both the national and international levels. In other words, the OAS report points to the possibility of reform of the international drug control conventions—an issue some countries would like to see on the agenda of the 2016 UNGASS.

However, in Antigua few governments endorsed any of the alternative policies suggested by the OAS report and how many countries will actually promote the national-level debates mandated in Antigua remains to be seen. It was clear from the individual country speeches on the topic that the “reformist” countries are far out-numbered by those which appear wedded to present policy. And support for or against an alternative approach does not break down on ideological lines. The hardest-line speech supporting a “war on drugs” approach came from Venezuela. Nicaragua, Panama, and El Salvador, among other countries, also spoke out in favor of the status quo. Neither Brazil nor Argentina articulated a reform agenda. Colombia’s foreign minister gave a very diplomatic statement that supported the OAS reports but for the most part focused on Colombia’s “achievements” in coca eradication and cocaine interdiction and what the country is doing to export its security-oriented model to the rest of the region. The Mexican government supported the Special Session, but continued to play its cards very close to its chest.

In terms of countries advocating reform, in the opening ceremony Guatemalan President Pérez Molina gave an impassioned speech on the need for drug policy reform. Ecuador’s foreign minister also criticized the U.S. “war on drugs.” And as was to be expected, the Uruguayan government gave the most articulate speech advocating a public health and human rights-based approach to drug control. It also pointed to the need to discuss the international conventions so as to improve effectiveness and ensure respect for individual and collective rights. In another welcome development, gender issues were highlighted by several delegates and Secretary General José Miguel Insulza and one of the two roundtable discussions organized by the OAS was on “Women and Drugs in the Americas: A diagnosis in the making.”

Given these continued divisions between countries, what can be expected from the drug policy debate in Latin America? While press headlines prior to and during the Antigua meeting speculated about legalization, if one thing is clear it is that any regional consensus in favor of moving toward legal, regulated markets for all drugs is a long way off. More realistically, three possible advances are most likely to emerge from this debate. First, more emphasis on treating drug dependency as a public health issue and growing support for decriminalization of carrying small amounts of drug for personal consumption. Already, numerous countries in the region do not criminalize possession for personal consumption (though the United States remains a major exception) and it is not mandated by the drug control conventions. Second, more emphasis on reducing violence rather than the scale of the drug market, a point highlighted in the OAS report. And third, growing regional tolerance that allows for more flexibility at the local and national level to experiment with policies that are appropriate for individual countries, states and cities. Ultimately, reaching consensus on drug convention reform will be a long and difficult process. In the meantime, reforms will come from below—from the local and national experimentation with alternative drug control policies—and should help guide the regional and international drug policy debate. Allowing such experimentation to flourish is a necessary step forward in developing and implementing more humane and effective drug control policies.

By Coletta A. Youngers, IDPC Associate, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and member of the Colectivo de Estudios Drogas y Derecho (CEDD).


[1] These include meetings at the national level; in regional multidisciplinary groups; the next bi-annual meeting of the OAS’s Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) which will take place in Colombia in December 2013; in the Meeting of Ministers Responsible for Public Security in the Americas, also to be held in Colombia in November 2013; and in other specialized meetings coordinated by the OAS General Secretariat.