How Will Cuba Update its Drug Policy?

By Isabella Bellezza-Smull*

A graffiti street sign

A “Say no to drugs” sign spotted in Santiago de Cuba. / tgraham / Flickr / Creative Commons

Cuba – unlike neighbors long wracked by the drug trade and its violence – has one of the lowest drug-use and homicide rates in the Western Hemisphere, but national drug experts are debating how to adapt the country’s strategy to new challenges.  The debate is taking place amid positive evaluations by the Cuban government, the U.S. State Department, and others that indicate rates of illicit drug consumption, production, and retail in Cuba have been negligible, while reliable anecdotal information suggests a rise in drug use and transit as the country opens its doors to foreign trade, travel, and allows emergence of a domestic private sector.

  • Cuba credits its success to a comprehensive approach that includes confrontation, collaboration, prevention, and treatment. In conversation with U.S. drug enforcement counterparts, Cubans emphasize tough-on-drugs policies, including sanctions for drug possession, production, and trafficking, and to the effectiveness of the anti-drug police force, interdiction operations, and some 40 bilateral counternarcotics agreements.  To other partners, they stress multi-sector, humanistic prevention and treatment efforts directed by the Comisión Nacional de Drogas (CND).  The CND coordinates national health, education, justice, and community sectors to prevent and delay the initiation of drug use – and to treat it as a public health issue when it does occur.  Even though drug possession is a crime, the diversion of illicit drug users from the criminal justice system to health clinics has been an important element of national strategy.

Despite its successes, Cuba faces a number of challenges with respect to illicit drugs.  If Cuba continues to increase tourism and diversify its foreign trade, the possibility of drugs – and recreational drug cultures – reaching Cuban shores will increase, putting further stress on the country’s “just-say-no” approach.  The emergence of a class of Cuban entrepreneurs with increased disposable income could create a new appetite for drugs, and the possible exacerbation of economic inequality could make the illicit-drug market attractive, whether as producers or retailers.  A well-established context of informal markets and back-channel networks already exists that could be repurposed to distribute drugs.

Cuba’s robust public health, educational, and community-based institutions – the basis of protective factors related to drug abuse – afford the country an opportunity to adopt a more progressive approach to drug control.  The CND remains publicly committed to prohibition and fighting illicit drugs, but there are also signs that alternative strategies are being considered.  Cuba’s leading research center for drug treatment, the Centro para el Desarrollo Académico sobre Drogodependencias (CEDRO), is beginning to explore harm-reduction measures as an alternative to abstinence-based approaches – acknowledging, as its coordinator has said, that “not everyone who comes to consultation is willing to assume abstinence.”  Decriminalization of drug-use and possession appears extremely unlikely, even though studies in other countries show it reduces high-risk behaviors that increase the spread of infectious diseases and death from overdose, the diversion of law enforcement resources from serious criminality, and exploding prison populations.  More likely, Cuba’s debate probably will touch on adopting harm-reduction measures to treat and prevent problematic drug use, and investing in alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-level participants in illicit drug markets involved in production, transport, and sale.

December 7, 2017

* Isabella Bellezza-Smull is Latin America coordinator for Global Exchange.  This article is adapted from a study – Will Cuba Update its Drug Policy for the Twenty First Century? – that she prepared for the Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro.

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