As the U.N. General Assembly is about to hold one of the most crucial sessions on global drug policy in the past two decades, the Union of South American Nations is preparing a common position that will help them push for a new policy emphasizing human rights and public health.
“In Latin America, we've been tough on the weak ones, and weak with the tough ones,” said the former Colombian president and Unasur head.
“We have persecuted the small campesinos, cultivators of illicit drugs, we have put in jail consumers, we have persecuted the small traffickers who deal in high schools, who usually are the students themselves,” he added, pointing to the failure of the global anti-drug policy implemented so far.
The full prohibitionist policy was agreed on during the U.N. Vienna Convention in 1988, and then further developed under U.S. leadership through its war on drugs - a heavily militarized approach that focuses on punishing the suppliers and criminalizing the consumers, especially in Latin America.
According to Samper, the region has been both a laboratory and a victim of such repressive policies. Now, more than 30 years later, the results have clearly proved that its the wrong policy: 300 million consumers of illicit drugs exist nowadays, including 180 million who consume marijuana, while 30 percent more people consume synthetic drugs like ecstasy, acid, and amphetamines. Meanwhile in the United States, four states have decided to legalize the production, distribution, and consumption of marijuana.
The region has paid an expensive political and social price for that, as violence and homicide rates have been skyrocketing during this period, including the targeting of “policemen, judges, journalists, and politicians,” deplored Samper.
However, the Unasur will not advocate for a full legalization policy either – regardless that this position is being debated under the presidency pro-tempore of Uruguay, the only country of the region that opted for the legalization of consumption, production and state-controlled sale of marijuana. The objective is rather to amend the Vienna Convention in order to incorporate other human rights conventions into the drug policies.
“We do not believe that the solution to total prohibition is to fall into the other extreme – total legalization. We believe that the alternative is decriminalization, meaning maintaining the social condemnation of behaviors related to drugs,” said Samper.
Therefore the proposal is two folded. First, the decriminalization of consumption means finding alternatives to prison sentences, while education campaigns would help prevention, on a similar line to alcohol and tobacco, and others would address addiction with a health-oriented approach.
Such measures will seek to “prevent the consumption [of drugs] to widen, in order to create the condition of a safe consumption, and if this consumption generates addictions and brings forth pathological extremes, it can be regulated by measures that have to do with public health,” added Samper.
As for the producers, campesinos who are sowing illicit products need to be given social alternatives of substitution - alternatives to the destruction of the crops.
Second, Samper insisted on the need to “be tougher against organized crime,” through measures such as coordinating better intelligence services of the region, or defining more effectively who the criminals are.
“We have committed ourselves to persecute the mules, people who carry a quarter of kilo or half a kilo and who are used as a mechanism of distraction so bigger shipments can go through without drawing the attention,” Samper said, explaining that the people managing the shipments should instead be the focus of an efficient anti-drug policy.
Despite some differences within the bloc, Samper expects Unasur members states to reach a consensus fairly easily with this two-pronged approach.
Most of the region is already moving toward this position at a national level. Bolivia for instance recently legalized the ancestral consumption of the coca leaf. In Colombia, the social substitution of coca crops is being negotiated with the guerrilla groups in Havana. Lawmakers of Chile are considering a bill that would also legalize the production of drugs oriented to medical use.
When asked about how optimistic he felt to efficiently push for a new policy at UNGASS 2016, Samper admitted that the battle was not won yet: “There is a block of Western countries, but it is mainly Eastern countries for whom drug policies is a deeper ethical issue.”
Nevertheless, the new policy he advocates does not demand a radical change but only to take into account various differences, for instance between types of drugs like marijuana and heroin, between types of producers like small campesinos and big drug-traffickers, between “the 1/2 kilo carried by the mule because she needs money to educate her children, or the big shipments crossing the border via Mexico.”
Resolute with their experience in fighting drugs, there is a chance that the Unasur position might find a consensus among global leaders.