The Organization of American States’ most recent report on the drug problem in the Americas – released last week in Bogotá – takes a fresh, analytical look at the issue and, by advocating discussion of new approaches, subtly signals the “war on drugs” so far has failed. The report was mandated by hemispheric leaders last year at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, who “agreed on the need to analyze the results of the current policy in the Americas and to explore new approaches to strengthen this struggle and to become more effective.” It takes an analytical approach toward drug-related problems in the hemisphere and includes a discussion of both the supply and demand factors of the drug trade. (Click here to view the OAS documents.)
The report does not make bold policy recommendations. It calls for greater attention to the public-health implications of the drug problem, but generally avoids advocating particular strategic solutions to the production, transportation and consumption of illegal narcotics, instead providing different scenarios for the evolution of the drug problem in the Americas. It envisions the legalization of certain drugs, such as marijuana, in various countries, but makes clear that the OAS is not advocating legalization or decriminalization. Instead, the report emphasizes the need for countries in the Western Hemisphere to work together to combat the drug problem and discuss new approaches.
The OAS’s unique status in the hemisphere – demands on its performance are high but support for its efforts from key governments in the region is inconsistent – may not make it the best organization to take the lead on an issue as thorny as the “war on drugs.” The increasingly clear consensus south of the Rio Grande is that the past couple decades of effort have been not been worth the cost in dollars and lost lives, and many Central Americans, in particular, believe the militarized approach has been disastrous. Often criticized by U.S. politicians and bureaucrats, Secretary General Insulza was probably wise not to use the report to formalize the hemisphere’s rejection of Washington’s policies. But moving the discussion to the analytical level – rather than parroting support for another Plan Colombia or Mérida Initiative – is a significant accomplishment in itself. Rolling out the report in Bogotá, where talk of “new approaches” is also growing, probably helped strike the right balance between old and new. In addition to platitudinous calls for regional cooperation, the OAS can demonstrate its leadership and relevance by channeling the criticism, the lessons learned, frustration with U.S. consumption, and regional governments’ prescriptions on the way ahead into a serious, constructive strategy for the hemisphere. With this report, the OAS has indicated that it’s time to get serious about viable alternative solutions to this multi-faceted issue – and that clinging to old models and rejecting new ideas is no longer an acceptable response to calls for rethinking the “war on drugs.”