Rethinking Drug Policy in the Americas

Event Picture and Panelist Pictures for the event Main Photo: Chief Petty Officer Luke Pinneo / CC0

On December 15, 2020, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted the webinar “Rethinking Drug Policy in the Americas.” The panel discussed the report of the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission, published this month, and its evaluations of US counternarcotics policy in the Americas and recommendations for its reform. The webinar featured moderation from Michael Camilleri, director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, and analysis from Juan Manuel Santos, former president of Colombia and current member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, Shannon K. O’Neil, Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission chair, and vice president and Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin American Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Clifford M. Sobel, Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission vice chair and former Ambassador of the United States to Brazil.

Panelists from the event "Rethinking Drug Policy in the Americas"
Michael Camilleri, Shannon O’Neil, Juan Manuel Santos, Clifford M. Sobel

O’Neil began the conversation with an explanation of the Commission’s mandate to analyze US counternarcotics policy in the region and provide recommendations for its reform. The reasons behind this concerted effort to rethink US policy included the anniversary of 50 years of the war on drugs, and that despite best intentions thousands of Americans and Latin Americans are still dying of illegal drug use and violence associated with its production. She clarified that while the legislative mandate was broad, the Commission only focused on the supply-side of the issue. As such, the issue of legalization and regulation was outside the scope of the report. What is covered in the report are the notable partnerships on drug policy between the United States and its regional allies. On Mexico, O’Neil explained the report’s recommendations for the Mérida Initiative and how US-Mexico relations will change with the incoming Biden administration. The relationship is likely to become more institutionalized and negotiations take place across US agencies, rather than directly through the White House. The fentanyl issue, which is a priority of the US Congress, will also affect enforcement efforts on drug trafficking in Mexico. Cartels that move fentanyl operate very differently compared to those trafficking in plant-based drugs. O’Neil argued that the more “local approach we are advocating for in this report is exactly because of this shifting landscape” that accompanies the ever-changing nature of drug economies. Lastly, she touched on cooperating with Central American countries whose leaders may not be committed to rooting out corruption. She advised that the United States look for allies elsewhere such as local government officials, attorneys general, prosecutors, civil society members, investigative press or the business sector.

One of the overarching recommendations of the Commission’s report is to reform US counternarcotics policy through a whole-of-government approach. Ambassador Sobel explained that the Under Secretary for Political Affairs would be given the responsibility of coordinating this approach by way of the State Department. Among other recommendations given by the Commission, they suggest that the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s (ONDCP) mandate change to one of benchmarking and evaluating programs, the drug certification and classification process be replaced, and US ambassadors be empowered to create foreign assistance compacts. Regarding whether Congress and the new administration will have the political will to implement the recommendations given polarization in Washington, Sobel highlighted the bipartisan nature of the Commission. He also referenced the recent hearing by the Commission in front of Congress as an indication of their commitment to drug policy reform, noting the interest of lawmakers on the fentanyl issue in particular. Three factors make it likely that recommendations will be implemented: 1) the people involved in the Commission, 2) the timeliness of the issues covered, 3) president-elect Biden’s experience in the region and its prioritization during his administration.

The Commission’s report has generated commentary and criticism in the region, particularly in Colombia, where President Duque and his defense minister disagree with the Commission’s conclusion that Plan Colombia has failed. In his remarks, former President Santos agreed with the Commission’s findings and added that his experience in government and on the Global Commission on Drug Policy has convinced him that the war on drugs was lost. Despite the number of hectares of coca eradicated and sprayed over the last 20 years, coca production remains high and Colombia is still one of the top exporters in the world. From a cost-benefit analysis, spraying coca is also a waste of resources. The Commission’s report calculated that eliminating one hectare of coca worth $450 with aerial fumigation costs the government approximately $57,000. It is also ineffective; Santos stated that the replanting rate of hectares sprayed was 60-70 percent. On the report’s recommendations, Santos expressed his support for revoking the drug certification and classification process, which is a “humiliating policy for a country like Colombia.” One of the contradictions of the process is it undermines the execution of alternative development programs in Colombia. He described one such example where “USAID could not finance [farmers] that were planting coca because they were still considered FARC and the FARC [are listed] as terrorists.” An advocate for ending prohibition and encouraging legalization, Santos joins many former presidents from Latin America in denouncing a hardline approach to drug policy. Yet few current presidents in the region advocate the same practice. He noted that a hardline approach is still popular electorally, and that one focused more on treatment, regulation, or alternative development requires more explanation to citizens. 


Expresidente colombiano Santos enfatiza aspectos colaterales de la lucha antidrogas
(December 15, 2020 – VOA Noticias)


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