Restless politicians are changing the debate about narcotics liberalisation
May 25th 2013 |From the print edition
Time to light up
SEVEN of the world’s eight most violent countries lie on the bloody trafficking route from the cocaine fields of the Andes to the nostrils of North America. So it is unsurprising that Latin American leaders are fed up with the way drugs are policed. The international rules on prohibition were laid down by the United Nations more than 50 years ago, making drug policy difficult for individual countries to reform. But diplomats and do-gooders are finding ever more chinks in prohibition’s legal armour.
The latest attempt came on May 17th, when the Organisation of American States (OAS), a regional inter-governmental club, presented a report that pushed the limits of what can be said about drugs in polite diplomatic company. Drawn up with the input of academics, officials, policemen and others (including a journalist from The Economist), it envisioned a future in which by 2025 cannabis is legal in much of Europe and the Americas, a regional market for coca-leaf (cocaine’s raw ingredient) is in operation, and the UN’s anti-drug conventions are up for renegotiation.
This was only one of four “scenarios”; the OAS took pains to make clear it was not advocating or even forecasting such changes. The approach was suggested by Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia, where the same technique has been used to negotiate with rebels in past peace talks. Three other scenarios outlined in the report were worthy but tame. None contained new policy proposals. Though big on radical ideas, the report was timid in evaluating them: its 190 pages contained not a single recommendation.
Nonetheless, it is the first time legalisation has been seriously explored by an inter-governmental organisation. Such outfits are normally “burial grounds” for innovative ideas on drug policy, says Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance, a pro-legalisation group. Countries such as Uruguay, which later this year may become the first to legalise the recreational use of pot, “will be reassured that what they are doing is a legitimate possibility”, says Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch of the Open Society Foundations, another pro-legalisation body, funded from the deep pockets of George Soros, a financier. State governments in America that have taken their own route to legalisation may be heartened, too.
The report will be debated at the OAS’s annual summit next month in Guatemala; the government there is perhaps the hemisphere’s most radical on drug policy. Otto Pérez Molina, the president, has called for the legalisation—and strict regulation—of all narcotics, including the hard ones. A former military man who has burned down his fair share of cannabis fields, he makes a strange ally to the libertarian-minded legalisation movement. But he has said that fighting the drug war only made him realise its futility. He has appointed Fernando Carrera, a former local head of the Open Society Foundations, as his foreign secretary.
Meanwhile in Europe, politicians in Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands are badgering their national governments to legalise marijuana along similar lines to the states of Colorado and Washington across the Atlantic. New Zealand is about to pass legislation to regulate “legal highs”. Defenders of international drug laws can expect no respite.
From the print edition: International