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Election Blog Series – Drug Policy Reform at Home and Abroad

WFP Colombia Team

With the end of the U.S. presidential election, political commentators have begun predicting what the differences and similarities will be between the next four years and the last four. A slew of articles were dedicated to U.S. policy toward Latin America. Latin Americans heavily favored President Obama in the elections. In Colombia, we watched as a small town held mock elections for the U.S. President, which Obama won handily for the second time. Mitt Romney didn’t even have a campaign manager. The feeling is similar across the region. According to a poll in Chile, Latin Americans in 18 countries selected President Obama as their favorite leader in the Americas. However, respect for President Obama does not mean people are content with his policies or with the relationship between the United States and their countries. U.S. drug policy in the region illustrates this divergence.

While overshadowed by pocketbook issues, drug policy reform is urgently needed. There is growing tension between the U.S. and Latin American governments over the current approach to tackling this joint problem, and its impacts have been felt throughout the Americas. Launched more than 40 years ago, the War on Drugs intended to curb drug use at home by stemming production abroad. Unfortunately, it failed to achieve either goal. At home, punitive policies have failed to address the problems directly related to drugs and drug use, such as abuse, addiction, and adolescent use. Instead, they have led to human rights abuses, racist enforcement patterns, and landed unprecedented levels of nonviolent drug offenders in prison. In Latin America, a militarized drug interdiction and source-eradication strategy has not curbed production or trafficking. It has instead lead to increased displacement, migration, mass human rights violations and the loss of tens of thousands of lives.

Today people from across the Americas, spanning from civil society actors to former and sitting presidents, including some of our closest allies in the drug war, are calling for a new approach to drug policy. Given Latin American leaders’ growing discontent with U.S. policies, shifts in the region’s political ideology, and the joint nature of many issues confronting the Americas, President Obama will need not be able to continue ignoring Latin America in his second term.

Drug Policy under President Obama

The Obama Administration has made positive steps toward investing in drug demand reduction programs in the United States. The Office on National Drug Control Policy’s statements have emphasized drug treatment and prevention programs rather than criminal justice solutions. Still, the Administration’s rhetoric has not been met with adequate substantive reforms. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the criminal penalty disparity between crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. Though a step in the right direction, the law reduced rather than eliminated racist law enforcement policies.

The Obama Administration has also endorsed the current militarized strategy of the War on Drugs, continuing its failed and harmful policies abroad. It has not only continued providing hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to fight the drug war in Mexico and Colombia, but exported the same model to Central America, and especially Honduras. In order to skirt human rights restrictions on aid, the U.S.-backed Colombian security forces are now providing training to Honduran security forces, both of which have dismal human rights records. Mexico also tapped a retired Colombian police chief to be a security adviser in spite of his alleged ties to illegal paramilitary groups. Without a fundamental change in militarized drug policy in Latin America, innocent civilians will continue to be the ones who bear the brunt of the violence. This reality was underscored for the Obama Administration after a DEA-led operation killed four civilians.

Governor Mitt Romney didn’t offer any alternatives to the status quo either. He called for an end to medical marijuana use, characterizing it as a wrong step in the direction of drug regulation. He has also called for continued militarization of the War on Drugs abroad, and, had he been elected, would likely have ramped up military aid while decreasing social aid.

There is little difference between the presidential candidates on drug policy, though President Obama seems more willing to discuss alternatives. The real policy difference is between the United States and Latin American countries. Most Latin American heads of state expressed their discontent with the U.S. War on Drugs at the Summit of the Americas in May 2012. Even hard-line conservative governments, including Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, a retired military general, recognize the status quo as ineffective and demand alternatives. At the very least, the United States government should recognize its declining ability to maintain the status quo and welcome a policy debate. Washington will not be able to dictate its policy to leaders in the region if they are no longer willing to listen.

First Test for Reform: Starting At Home

As Colorado and Washington voters went to the polls this past Tuesday and re-elected Obama, they also voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana, and lawmakers must draft laws guiding its regulation and sale. It is the first time any U.S. state has approved the legal regulation of marijuana, and many are hailing it as progress and comparing it to the beginning of the end of alcohol prohibition. It is unclear what will happen just yet, as both initiatives are in direct violation of federal law. Before the measures were passed, the Department of Justice remained silent when asked how it would respond if voters favored marijuana regulation. Afterward, a representative said federal drug law “remains unchanged” but declined to comment on the states’ initiatives until after further review.

Drug policy reform advocates remain hopeful but uneasy, unsure how the Obama Administration will respond to the measures. It could invoke federal law, but doing so would indicate a complete disregard to the will of voters. “In fact, more people voted in favor of marijuana regulation in the ‘swing state’ of Colorado than for Barack Obama,” commented the Drug Policy Alliance’s Daniel Brito. “Advocates of the status quo will have to concede that this is now absolutely a mainstream issue fit for rational discussion, unless they think Barack Obama is somehow a fringe candidate, with his mere 51% support, compared to 54.8% support for allowing adults to choose marijuana over alcohol.”

This instance provides a first test for President Obama on drug policy reform. How the government responds to the measures at home could be a signal for how it will react to dissent abroad. The domestic response itself could have a significant impact abroad. For example, regulation in the United States could decrease marijuana exports from Mexico, thereby reducing the power of violent Mexican cartels. These measures are therefore positive from an international perspective as well.


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