Will Hemispheric Leaders Change Course on Drug Policy?

This winter the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition was invited to participate alongside 45 other representatives of government, business and civil society organizations in a process to create different scenarios for what could happen in the hemisphere related to drugs and drug policies over the next 15 years.

The commitment to undertake such a forward thinking exercise was made by leaders at the 6th Summit of the Americas held in Cartagena, Colombia in 2012, where they agreed to review current approaches to illegal drugs and to consider alternative futures for drug policy in the region. Through a process of transformative scenario planning, a diverse array of participants came together to create different scenarios that each tell a story of what could happen in the next 15 years – not what should happen or what we want to happen – but what could happen in the area of drugs and drug policy. The OAS has also prepared an analytical report that looks at the situation on the ground.

The agreement to undertake this process stemmed from the urgency Latin American leaders expressed this past year in response to the increasing levels of violence in the region. For several years the voices of former and sitting political leaders in Latin America have been becoming more insistent that drug policies must be reviewed because of the death and destruction being witnessed related to the ongoing war on drugs. Even Canada’s cautious and conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that “It is clear that what we are doing is not working” at the closing press conference of the Summit. He is not alone.

Sitting leaders in Colombia, Uruguay, Guatemala and the former leaders of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia have all called for dialogue on alternative approaches including considering the legal regulation of drugs, decriminalization, and shifting illegal crops such as poppies and coca to legal cultivation regimes for medical and industrial uses. Is change really in the wind or is this a policy window that will slam shut with a few changes of leadership? Dialogue is an ongoing process and the commitment by the OAS to undertake scenario building is a great start. But where will it lead?

On May 15th, the OAS will release its analytical report and a set of four scenarios developed through the scenario planning process. This release is another marker on the path towards drug policy reform in the hemisphere and the scenarios presented will provide an opportunity for dialogue and public engagement on the future of drug policy in the region. The release of a the scenarios is the next event in a string of opportunities that are coming up over the next 3 years that may help to turn the tide on the war on drugs.

In early June, a Summit of Foreign Ministers will be held to discuss and craft a declaration to strengthen and update drug policies in the region including considering some alternative approaches. In 2014, the United Nations will complete a mid-term high-level review of the Plan of Action that came out of the 2009 Commission on Narcotic Drugs. In 2015, the next Summit of the Americas will take place in Panama, which will provide a serious opportunity for leaders to consider new directions in drug policy. And in 2016, the United Nations General Assembly will hold a special session on Drug Policy in New York. The road ahead provides a number of critical opportunities for politicians to show leadership and support efforts to learn from new ideas and approaches. Let’s see if they can rally the support and courage to do so.

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Donald MacPherson

About Donald MacPherson

Donald MacPherson is the Executive Director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and one of Canada’s leading figures in drug policy. In 2000 he published Vancouver’s groundbreaking Four Pillars Drug Strategy that precipitated a broad public discussion on issues related to addiction.

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