Drug Policy in the Andes

Seeking Humane and Effective Alternatives
Socorro Ramírez Coletta Youngers
International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance - International & The Carter Center
December 2011

Fifty years after signing the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and 40 years after the U.S. government declared a "war on drugs," many obstacles remain despite the partial successes of efforts to counter the problem. The Andean-United States Dialogue Forum, noted with concern how drug policy has monopolized the diplomatic and economic agenda between the Andean countries, contributing to tensions among the governments and impeding cooperation on other crucial priorities, such as safeguarding democratic processes from criminal networks.

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Download the Executive Summary (PDF)

Organized crime tied to drug trafficking continues to rise, aggravating violence that involves gangs and hired assassins, murders and arms trafficking. These criminal organizations take advantage of all forms of illicit interaction with the state: corruption, impunity and infiltration. They also try to block action bypolice and the courts by co-opting or assassinating public officials, legislators and prosecutors. A growing symbiosis between the state and organized crime spreads insecurity and weakens democratic institutions.

The election of Barack Obama raised expectations that Washington would acknowledge the urgent need for a change in drug policy. It is fair to highlight a shift in language and tone under the Obama administration, which has stopped using the term “war on drugs” and has acknowledged the need to treat drug use as a public health problem. It is also noteworthy that the White House is taking a less interventionist stance in response to alternatives emerging in the region. Specific policy reforms have yet to be defined, however.

The regional dynamic has changed with the "left turn" that has occurred in the majority of South American countries, as well as the diversification in these countries’ international relations. Countries are seeking their own platform, such as the Andean Community (CAN) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), to discuss policies and respond to priority issues on the international agenda.

The limitations of the current drug policy is causing increasing frustration within and between countries and is leading policy makers, experts and activists in the region to seek new strategies to contain the escalation of illicit markets and minimize the harm done to people, communities and states by drug production and use.

The work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and of the Global Commission on Drug Policy has begun to break the taboo that has blocked progress in discussions of policy assessment and alternatives. In the present report, the authors describe a series of alternatives being considered and, in some cases, implemented in Latin America. These alternative policies are reflected in the following recommendations:

• Take the proposals of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and the Global Commission on Drug Policy as points of departure when formulating drug policy and launch an educational and media campaign to help remove ideological biases from the debate while promoting a more evidence-based and regional approach to drug policy.

• Include additional state institutions (not just those related to police or military activities) in this shared task, along with the widest possible range of eminent individuals, communications media, health experts, non-governmental organizations, civil society and community organizations, churches and academics.

• Support the Global Commission on Drug Policy’s call for a deeper debate on new approaches that focus on reducing the harm caused to the most vulnerable sectors of society affected by the production, trafficking and consumption of drugs, which would benefit the Andean countries in their efforts to develop humane and effective policies.

• Take into consideration efforts to implement new policies based on specific national situations and local cultural or social circumstances.

• Support the August 10, 2009 declaration by the governments of the UNASUR countries, in which they "recognize that the chewing of coca leaves is an ancestral cultural manifestation of the Bolivian people which must be respected by the international community."

• Strengthen dialogue and agreements among the Andean countries and within the frameworks of CAN and UNASUR and ensure the participation of civil society in these regional entities; implement UNASUR’s South American Council on the World Drug Problem; and hold a regional meeting to discuss the development of a common agenda on drug policy.

• Implement solid drug use prevention, treatment and harm-reduction policies that respect human rights and offer adequate care to those who need it, treat drug use as a public health problem rather than a crime, and allocate the necessary resources to achieve this goal.

• Support the recommendation of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy to evaluate "the convenience of decriminalizing the possession of cannabis for personal use."

Decriminalize personal consumption, use alternatives to incarceration for perpetrators of minor, non-violent crimes, and apply humanitarian considerations to confront the devastating impact the increase of women incarcerated for drug trafficking is having on their lives, their families and their communities.

• Advance towards an agreement among the Andean countries to end the forced eradication of small farmers' crops and redirect resources toward rural development.

• Adopt an "alternative livelihoods" approach that involves an appropriate sequence of actions: once other sources of income are established, crops for illegal markets can be reduced. This strategy implies decriminalizing relations with small farmers, instead making them partners in the effort to foster integrated rural development.

• Redirect law-enforcement efforts toward dismantling criminal organizations and networks linked to drug trafficking; improve and target intelligence activities; transform the exercise of politics; strengthen institutions; confront corruption and empower communities – especially those located in border areas.

• Strengthen mechanisms to protect democratic institutions from the corrosive influence of illicit political financing from drug trafficking by leveling the electoral playing field through measures such as public financing for parties and candidates, financial transparency during campaigns and sanctions against parties that include confirmed "narco-candidates" on their tickets.

This executive summary is an excerpt from the report: Drug Policy in the Andes: Seeking Humane and Effective Alternatives written by Socorro Ramírez and Coletta Youngers

This publication has been developed under the Andean - U.S. Dialogue Forum that was supported by International IDEA and The Carter Center.