This weekend's Summit of the Americas did not produce a joint communiqué charting the future of the hemisphere, but the 31 leaders agreed on one thing: The U.S.-led war on drugs has been a dismal failure.
The summit pledged to create a panel of experts through the Organization of American States to consider drug policy reforms, and new approaches to stem the violence and power of the drug cartels.
Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has created mandatory-minimum prison terms at home for minor drug offences, seems to have moved beyond the rhetoric of a Reagan-era counter-narcotics crusade: "Everyone believes... that the current approach [to the war on drugs]is not working, but it is not clear what we should do."
The onus is on the hemisphere's leaders, including Mr. Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama, to consider innovative, evidence-based policies. The decriminalization of marijuana – which comprises between 25 and 40 per cent of the drug cartels' revenues – is one option. In the Netherlands, where licensed coffee shops can sell small amounts of marijuana, the rate of cannabis use is just 5 per cent, versus 14 per cent in the U.S. The policy of tolerance helps the government regulate cannabis sellers, and also distinguishes between soft drugs and cocaine and heroin.
In Portugal, where all drugs were decriminalized in 2001, there has been a decrease in serious drug use and drug-related deaths, and a savings to the criminal-justice system. "The aim shouldn't be to totally decriminalize the whole enterprise, but to set some reasonable standards so that people don't become criminals for minor drug use and clandestine organizations don't make obscene amounts of money," said Allert Brown-Gort, a Latin American expert at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
The problem with the current war-on-drugs policy is that it is unwinnable – and leads to weakened states, staggering levels of violence and continued drug consumption in Canada and the U.S. The U.S. spent $8-billion to help Colombia eradicate coca fields, only to have coca production shift to Peru and Ecuador and cartels set up new smuggling routes in weaker states. Guatemala and El Salvador now have the highest homicide rates in the world, while 50,000 people have been killed in Mexico since 2006.
In the words of Guatemalan President Otto Perez, a champion of drug liberalization, it is time to "stop being dumb witnesses to a global deceit" and consider treatment, harm reduction and decriminalization as viable alternatives.